"If I've done anything, I've given trash a good name," John Waters once said. Gee, maybe that's why everything he's done since Polyester (when he made the leap from 16 mm to 35 mm) has been so tastefully trashy, so trashily tasteful, so lame. Hard to believe, but Waters once mattered. I mean, Susan Sontag walked out on Pink Flamingos, for crissakes; that alone ought to get you into the National Institute of Arts and Letters. But if Waters' early movies were like so many turds floating idly toward the mainstream--landmarks in the history of cinematic transgression--his more recent movies have a Ti-D-Bowl freshness that's most unbecoming. Today, it's the Farrelly brothers who deliver the bracing slaps to the bourgeoisie, albeit with such innocence that shock often degenerates into schlock. Meanwhile, Waters has become what he once despised (but secretly desired): part of the establishment. Not that Cecil B. DeMented, Waters' latest, is a Hollywood movie, but it could have been. A wacky, tacky comedy about a group of "cinematic terrorists" who kidnap a movie star (Melanie Griffith's Honey Whitlock) and force her to appear in their underground film, Cecil B. DeMented is Waters biting the hand that feeds him, but with gums so soft as to turn pain into pleasure. If anything, it's the terrorists, a ragtag team of dopey-brained misfits, who come off looking bad. Loosely modeled on the Symbionese Liberation Army, which gave Patty Hearst the ride of her life back in the '70s, the "Sprocket Holes" are led by a Bowfinger-like madman who, thanks to Stephen Dorff's inadequate performance, is demented in name only. Alas, Griffith is even more inadequate as a two-faced bitch who, like Hearst, comes to identify with her captors. Not that the script gives her anything to work with.
Set and shot in Baltimore, Cecil B. DeMented is both poorly executed and poorly conceived. Of course, all of Waters' movies have been poorly executed, but only the recent ones have been poorly conceived. Why make a movie about a guy who would do anything to make his movie when all it really takes these days is a few thousand dollars and a gleam in your eye? (Has Cecil not heard of The Blair Witch Project?) And why make a movie about cinematic revolutionaries if you're just going to turn them into the gang that couldn't shoot straight? Whose side are you on? There's a faux naïveté in Cecil B. DeMented that shades over into vrai naïveté--a childish lack of understanding vis-à-vis the forces shaping Hollywood and off-Hollywood movies these days. Waters was once the shining example of a cinematic bad boy, the director as juvenile delinquent. Twenty-five years later, he just seems juvenile.