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Serial Mom (1994)
Directed by: John Waters
Starring: Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake
Rated: R for Satirical Presentation of Strong Violence, Vulgar Language, and Sexual Episodes
Running Time: 1 h 35 m
TMM Score: 3.5 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Uniqueness, Dripping With Satire, Hilarity
WEAKNESSES: Pacing, Joke Feels Played Out
Little annoyances drive a happy suburban mother to murder.
I’d never seen a John Waters film, and for whatever reason I’d read about a few of his movies online, and a morbid curiosity had begun to grow inside me. Waters has been dubbed ‘The Pope of Trash’ by various news outlets and magazines throughout his career, a title that he seems to cherish. From what I’ve heard, some of his other films feature absolutely disgusting imagery, but somehow his earlier, more crass films still received moderately good reviews. I was intrigued enough to check out his work, but not so intrigued that I wanted to jump right into Pink Flamingos, so I settled on this movie, one that Waters had called his favorite of his own films on a number of occasions. Unsure of what I’d experience, and, I admit, a touch nervous, I sat down and started my first John Waters film, only to begin laughing almost immediately.
"The only serial I know anything about is Rice Krispies."
This movie will certainly not be for everyone. It presents a face of nicety while a layer of filth runs below. It’s a constant theme in the film- the face we present vs the person we are beneath, and that becomes incredibly apparent even from the first few minutes of the movie. When we first meet Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner, Romancing the Stone) she’s happily cooking breakfast for her family; the mise-en-scene of the room is apropos of Leave it to Beaver or other 50’s sitcoms. The world looks pristine and perfect; Beverly is even friendly to the garbage men. But when the police arrive with a threatening note that Dottie Hinkle (Mink Stole, Desperate Living), the neighbor down the street, received, we start to see the crazy behind Beverly’s eyes. Once her children have gone, Beverly climbs to stairs, shuts the door and calls Dottie, disguises her voice and lets out a slew of profanities. The juxtaposition from what we’ve just seen- the perfect 50s housewife to the sailor-mouthed woman we see on screen- is absolutely jarring, but its also hilarious, in an off color/shocking sort of way. It’s this kind of humor that permeates the whole of the film; the juxtaposition is what is meant to be funny- almost every joke in this movie is situational humor. The film’s humor and tone works incredibly well, but obviously this is not something I can recommend to more conservative people, primarily because of the language and the violent content- all of which is meant to be satirical, but the objectionable content is still there.
The best part of this film is the man behind the camera. John Waters’ voice is strange but lyrical; he’s trying desperately to say something about the false faces people put on, and the lies that people get away with telling based on their outward appearances, and it works really well, plus it’s absolutely hysterical. The dialogue is slightly off, and feels sort of like a parody of 50s sitcoms, but then has moments of extreme language and content. The straightness and sincerity with which Kathleen Turner and the other cast members deliver their dialogue is what really gives it its bite. Perhaps some of my favorite moments were how John Waters worked in the little things that drove Beverly to murder with little flashback scenarios. He does this watery-dreamlike fade that I’m sure you’ve seen in a dozen black and white movies, and then cuts back to the moment of insurrection, usually to show something incredibly trivial. The reason Beverly has been harassing Dottie is because Dottie stole Beverly’s parking spot a Joanne Fabrics, and the reasons Beverly has for murdering people are utterly trivial. It’s wonderfully satirical, and all of the cast members do a great job of overacting and overselling their dialogue. Usually, I can’t stand overacting, but when it’s in a setting like this, the satire is heightened to new levels. Sam Waterston (The Killing Fields) plays the father in this film, and his naïve optimism is perfectly played. Ricki Lake (Hairspray (1988)) and Matthew Lillard (The Descendants) play Kathleen and Sam’s children, and their subplots are woven in wonderfully with Beverly’s killing sprees. Beverly seems to justify murdering people by thinking that she’s making her family’s lives easier by offing others.
If I had one negative thing to say about this film it’s that the joke has run its course by the time the film comes to the end. There are moments when I was almost crying from laughing (‘REWIND!’), but towards the very end I was ready for the film to wrap up. I was never bored, but the movie does start to drag, and it’s not like it’s a very long movie in the first place. Had they trimmed ten or so minutes from the film the ending might’ve worked a touch better.
Well, I’ve experienced my first John Waters film, and escaped without wanting to claw my eyes from my face. If I’m being honest, I really enjoyed this film, far more than I’d imagined I would. In fact, I’ve already started narrowing down the next Waters’ film I want to tackle (not Pink Flamingos- I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready for that). This film, while certainly not for everyone, is a hilarious satirical look at what the tiny things can do to drive one mad.
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