Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cecil B. Demented

From his early work as Baltimore's notorious shock auteur to his graduation into (sort of) Hollywood projects with name leads and respectable budgets, John Waters has always been the ultimate outsider, disconnected from the New York underground yet too crude and transgressive for the mainstream. In his last two films, 1998's Pecker and the clever new Cecil B. Demented, Waters has gleefully reveled in the ironic distance, broadsiding both the pretentious severity of the art world and pop culture's endless capacity for trash. An affectionate parody of stardom, indie excess, and his own days as a guerrilla filmmaker, Cecil B. Demented boasts what may be his most ingenious premise since the battle of the filth in Pink Flamingos. Stephen Dorff plays the title character, a fanatical director and self-proclaimed "prophet against profits" who vows to lead a revolution to destroy mainstream cinema. In a sharp opening sequence, Dorff and his ragtag crew infiltrate a movie premiere, kidnap marquee star Melanie Griffith, and force her to act in their independent film. Accustomed to constant pampering—at one point, she demands that her assistant ask the concierge if Pat Nixon got fucked in her hotel room—Griffith is appalled by the shoddy production values and her Divine-like makeover. But as Dorff and company mount a full-scale verité assault on evil multiplexes (one showing Patch Adams: The Director's Cut) and mega-budgeted sequels (Gump Again), she's gradually won over by her captors' cause. For Waters to plot Cecil B. Demented around the Patty Hearst story is a brilliant touch—Hearst, a Waters regular, appears briefly as a concerned parent—but his execution is occasionally left wanting. Never a polished filmmaker, Waters lurches forward on the strength of his lovable characters and provocative gags, but too many scenes feel slack and chaotic, as if they were staged by his cine-terrorists. But, despite its unevenness, Cecil B. Demented delivers all of the director's usual pleasures, graced by an agreeable tone, quotable one-liners ("I walk out of your films… on airplanes!"), and a colorful gallery of supporting players. Griffith, for her part, is game for the vicious self-parody and comes out looking better for it. In many ways Waters' most personal work, Cecil B. Demented is a special treat for fans, a warm and bittersweet throwback to his outlaw beginnings.

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