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Shortbus Reviews

John Cameron Mitchell's follow-up to HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (2000) is a darkly comic trifle that follows in the footsteps of such films as Catherine Breillat's ROMANCE (2000), THE BROWN BUNNY (2003) and Michael Winterbottom's 9 SONGS (2004) by incorporating hard-core sex into a nonpornographic narrative. Depressed and secretly suicidal former hustler James (Paul Dawson) and ebullient onetime child star Jamie (P.J. DeBoy), strong candidates for the title of most adorable gay couple ever, are going through a rough patch, and James suggests that after five years of monogamy, a threesome might revitalize their relationship. The adoring Jamie isn't so sure and suggests they seek professional guidance from Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a couples' therapist who's never had an orgasm despite an active and apparently satisfying sex life with her supportive, un- (or under-) employed husband, Rob (Raphael Barker). When her not-so-dirty little secret emerges during their session, James and Jamie introduce Sofia to Shortbus, a weekly salon devoted to conversation, movies, polymorphous public sex and general fabulosity, orchestrated by host Justin Bond, the glam half of NYC-based drag duo Kiki and Herb, playing some version of himself. (A shortbus, he explains, is the minivan that transports students who, for one reason or another, don't fit in with "normal" kids.) Sofia connects with dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish), who's too emotionally drained by her day job to pursue her art or a real relationship, and they agree to a novel therapy-for-sex-tips swap. James and Jamie meet model-turned-musician Ceth (Jay Brannan), who's intrigued by the prospect of a committed three-way relationship, which is threatened by a voyeur (Peter Stickles) who sees Ceth as a threat to the "perfect couple" he's been watching from his apartment window. Though the sex is frequent, graphic and ranges from athletic auto-eroticism to a cheerful gay threesome (a rare movie acknowledgment that sex can be goofy and good), the most startling thing about the film's sex scenes may be that they're performed by people whose eyes lack the reptilian opacity common to adult-movie professionals. Mitchell is equally interested in his characters' navel-gazing, Woody Allen-esque angst and in their erotic acrobatics, and his greatest innovation may be stripping on-screen sex of its heavy symbolic freight and letting it be as silly, serious, intense or detached as the people having it.