John Waters's film about a suburban mom turned serial killer lacks the bite it would need to be subversive, despite a few moments of vintage Waters tastelessness. Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is the image of suburban maternal perfection, crisp and polished in her spotless wardrobe of sundresses and neatly pressed jeans. She keeps a perfect house...read more
John Waters's film about a suburban mom turned serial killer lacks the bite it would need to be subversive, despite a few moments of vintage Waters tastelessness.
Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is the image of suburban maternal perfection, crisp and polished in her spotless wardrobe of sundresses and neatly pressed jeans. She keeps a perfect house and recycles faithfully. Her dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston) lives happily with every middle-class
man's fantasy: an acrobatic harlot in the bedroom who cooks, irons shirts, and looks out for the children with equal enthusiasm. Plump, pretty, brainless Misty (Ricki Lake) is boy-crazy and gawky, while pallid Chip (Matthew Lillard) lives for splatter movies, but they're mother's little prince and
princess, and anyone who crosses them will have to answer to her.
But things aren't as perfect as they seem. Beverly harasses neighbor Dottie Hinkle (Mink Stole), who once rudely cut her out of a mall parking space, with a series of monstrously obscene phone calls, and that's only the start. She quickly progresses to murder, killing the teacher who suggests
that Chip needs therapy, the neighbor who doesn't recycle, the boy who stands Misty up for a date with a hot slut (Traci Lords), the woman who doesn't rewind the tape she rented from the store where Chip works, and the patient who defies Eugene by refusing to floss. The mounting body count
eventually convinces the local police that there's a serial killer on the loose, and bit by bit the evidence mounts against Beverly. At first her family can't believe what people are suggesting, but eventually there's no denying the truth: Mom is a murderess. "Do you think I need a lawyer?" she
asks mildly. "You need an agent," Chip replies, warming to the possibilities of the situation, and he doesn't know the half of it. A local punk band has already started transforming Serial Mom into pop culture myth--the police capture her when she stumbles into one of their concerts--and there's
more to come.
Beverly's trial becomes a media event, attended by trial junkies and celebrities, including Suzanne Somers, who hopes to play Beverly in the TV movie. Chip and Misty hawk T-shirts and lapel buttons at a stand outside the courtroom ("I wish they'd had something like this at the William Kennedy
Smith trial," enthuses a grateful consumer) and Eugene stands by his woman with exemplary stoicism. Against all odds, Beverly is acquitted, but has she reformed? At the first opportunity, she corners the juror who's had the audacity to wear white shoes after labor day (Patty Hearst) in a phone
booth and beats her to death with the receiver.
John Waters's films, from THE DIANE LINKLETTER STORY to PINK FLAMINGOS, were the ne plus ultra of gleefully defiant bad taste. But Waters has faced a particularly difficult career transition: ever baser popular culture mores have conspired to rob him of the ability to shock with the mere mention
of transvestism, murder, coprophilia, sexual perversion, or rape by giant lobster. How can he hope to top homophobic murderers who blame it all on "The Jenny Jones Show" or the shameless media orgy surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial? Waters built an aesthetic based on transgression and dedication
to glorifying the marginal, the monstrous, and the just plain repellent. He may seem the perfect person to make a comedy about serial murder and the wormy underside of American pie suburbia, but SERIAL MOM is a curiously sanitized and lifeless affair. It's a one-joke movie, and in the age of
tabloid television and serial killer trading cards, the joke really isn't all that funny.
There is something delightful about one-time sex bomb Kathleen Turner's sugar-sweet evocation of 1950's sitcom mothers, from Harriet Nelson to Donna Reed. Her hair brushed into a perfect bob, her throaty voice wrapped around stock maternal injunctions, Turner is a monster of squeaky-clean
repression. But it's a momentary delight, quickly dulled by repetition. And the fact that Waters has made the transition to studio filmmaking is a less delicious irony than it ought to be, because mainstream success has taken the spiteful vitriol out of his assault on middle-class smugness. He was
the toast of the hopelessly bland '70s because he dared to be gross, but grossness doesn't shock anymore. (Violence, profanity, sexual situations.)
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