Look at June use that Cleaver!
Main Cast: Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston
Director: John Waters
This was my first John Waters film. Whether that puts me in the majority or the minority of movie watchers, I have no idea. Whether he occupies a particular niche in the film world, as defined by anything other than his own films, I have absolutely no idea. In the biography included on the DVD for Serial Mom, it is said that Waters takes pride in having now offended four generations of movie goers. What that says about the movies, I have absolutely, positively no idea. I like to see my viewing of Serial Mom as untainted rather than uninformed. After seeing this very odd movie, however, my curiosity was piqued, so I checked my handy Ephraim Katz Film Encyclopedia (everybody has one of those handy, don’t they?) to learn a bit more. Seems John Waters has been making biting, over the top social satire since 1970, usually choosing a suburban setting in which his merry band of miscreants wreaks havoc. Early on, he had a regular group of actors, including two persons by the names of Mink Stole (why didn’t my parents think of that?) and Divine, and later to include the illustrious Ricki Lake. While not large commercial successes, his films enjoy an almost unparalleled cult status. Serial Mom was released in 1994. I suspect a good many critics hated it, and I suspect John Waters would have been sorely disappointed had it been otherwise.
Serial Mom stars Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin. Beverly is as stereotypically Cleaverish (in more ways than one – more on that later) as it is possible to be while living outside of the 1950s. She is a housewife extraordinaire, serving lovingly prepared meals to her dentist husband, Eugene (Sam Waterston) and two teenage children, Misty (Ricki Lake) and Chip (Matthew Lillard). Beverly possesses a preternatural perkiness that is downright annoying.
From the first scenes of the movie, we can see that there is something slightly amiss about Beverly Sutphin. The extreme intensity with which she goes about annihilating an intruding fly is followed immediately by a chirpy offer to scramble some eggs. But this is just the wee tip of the iceberg. We soon see her making very unseemly prank phone calls to a neighbor (the movie was clearly made before the widespread use of caller ID) who, apparently, stole Beverly’s parking space one day at the store. Her behavior escalates following a conference with Chip’s math teacher in which the hapless teacher suggests that Chip’s obsession with gore filled horror movies might not be entirely healthy. Beverly is completely aghast at the notion that anything is amiss in her loving home, so proceeds to run over the teacher with her car. Things only become more murderously absurd from this point on, with only one constant. When Beverly is not stalking prey deemed socially unworthy according to her rather exacting standards, she reverts to Miss Manners, complete with housedress, heels and meatloaf. She refers to the word “shit” as “the brown word”, then plots to kill a non-recycling neighbor. She is Serial Mom. Soon she will be famous.
The premise here is really very clever. Blending the stereotype of the perfect stay-at-home housewife with something akin to an advanced form of road rage, and packaging it all together in a statement about the perversity of celebrity within our culture is both ambitious and absurd. Perhaps that is the point. Much of the blatant absurdity here (murder with a leg of lamb, anyone?) points a finger at the level of violence within our culture, the everyday sorts of people who commit it (but he was such a nice man) and our societal tendency to make celebrities of those same people. Or maybe Waters is just playing with us. Who knows. It doesn’t really matter. As a social satire, this film works quite well.
As a comedy, however, it is less effective. The premise gets old long before the movie ends, and there are more snorts than outright laughs to be had. You’re much more likely to shake your head at the ridiculousness than slap your knee in a fit of laughter. Waters pads his cast with a handful of off the wall semi-celebrities whose status resulted more from sensationalism than merit. Why else include Patricia Hearst and Traci Lords in his cast of bit parts? It’s funny on a very dark level, and made a bit more so by the fact that this dark comedy is photographed and set in such a bright and shiny Pollyanna-ish sort of place.
Kathleen Turner is very good as the good wife gone so very bad. The fact that she seems to be a bit on the creepy side off the screen doesn’t hurt one bit. She plays the part with maniacal glee, clearly having a wonderful time with the role. Sam Waterston as the befuddled husband is just as good, giving an excellent impression of a modern day Ward Cleaver. Lake and Lillard give take ‘em or leave ‘em performances. They do the job, but could have easily been replaced by just about any other pair of teens. The movie tends to mire itself with literally dozens of smaller roles, each adding a bit to the story, but giving it a cluttered feeling as well.
I definitely liked the way cinematographer Robert M. Stevens shot this movie, as well as the score by Basil Poledouris. The bright, happy, suburban setting is filled with sunshine and singing birds. Even when Beverly is doing her dirty work, the tone set by the lighting and the lilting, peppy music never fades. She could be perpetrating the most heinous of acts, but in all likelihood, she would be doing them in a sun brightened, perfectly decorated room accompanied by the warbling strains of Barry Manilow. That is just how perverse this movie is. Which is not at all a bad thing. It does, however, support my initial assertion that the movie is odd to the core.
I still haven’t decided if I actually liked Serial Mom or if I just out a kick out of the premise and some aspects of the execution. Either way, I’m not sorry to have seen it. If you are a fan of Waters’ work, or a lover of the absolutely, transparently absurd, you’ll probably have a good time with Serial Mom. If you are easily offended by casual murder via household instruments, you should probably stay away. Everyone else should give it a try, just to see what you think of this man and his strange world of film.