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Funeral Rights

A Texas family confronts death, homosexuality and repression

So when was the last time we heard from Olivia Newton-John? Seriously, why is it that John Travolta gets to have resurrection after pathetic resurrection, forgiven for endless sins, yet no one seems all that enthusiastic about his former female costar? She's looking a whole lot better these days than everyone's favorite blubbery Scientologist.

Perhaps she should have waited to have her second coming heralded with a Behind the Music special, but Newton-John is now back on the big screen in Sordid Lives. It's a smart role for her, too: She plays a singer, sings a song, then disappears until the end of the movie, at which point she sings a couple more songs, mostly old Southern standards like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." This way she gets to leave the audience wanting more while simultaneously getting top billing in all the promotional materials.

Meanwhile, the film also delivers the return of Delta Burke. Give credit to writer-director Del Shores for filling his script with meaty roles for middle-aged women, but jeez, aren't there enough good out-of-work actresses who aren't Delta Burke? Given the subject matter, one is tempted to deduce that Burke was cast because she'd be fun for a drag queen to impersonate.

Ah, yes, the subject matter. Shores, a popular playwright born in Zapata, Texas (pop. 5,000), and now residing in West Hollywood, has two favorite subjects: homosexuality and the Bible Belt. Seeing as how the two haven't tended to mix very well in real life, there's an instant predefined conflict to be had, and by all accounts Shore deals with this conflict effectively on stage, both with the play this film was based on and his current hit production, Southern Baptist Sissies. What works on the stage, however, doesn't always translate to celluloid.

The setup is a time-tested premise: Dysfunctional family members assemble for a funeral in small-town America. The family matriarch has died as a result of tripping over the wooden legs of dull-witted local G.W., played by Beau Bridges, the man with whom she was having an illicit affair. Daughters LaVonda (Ann Walker) and Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia) arrive to mourn at the house of their aunt Sissy (Beth Grant), then fiercely argue over whether their mother should be buried in her favorite mink stole. (Latrelle's argument against is that it's summer, and no one wears mink in summer.)

Meanwhile, there are other issues at play. LaVonda's best friend is Noleta (Burke), the wife of the cheating G.W., and there's a delicate balance there between comforting the distraught wife and allowing her to besmirch the name of a dead parent. The late mom also has one more child, Earl (Leslie Jordan, a veteran of Shores's stage productions), known to all as Brother Boy, who was locked up in a mental institution 20 years earlier for being gay and a drag queen. And Latrelle also has a gay son, an actor who lives out in L.A. and bounces around from therapist to therapist trying to be accepted for who he is. Latrelle remains in denial on the subject, assuming he's only playing gay roles on stage as a form of rebellion. (Citing Tom Hanks, she tells him, "If you're gonna play homosexual, don't waste it on theater -- win an Academy Award!")

The Southern touches are the film's biggest strength: Shores knows all too well the world of air conditioners, iced tea, poofy hair, pointless anecdotes about pigs and impromptu corny witticisms like "Get off the cross, buddy, we need the wood," or "Quit yer grinnin' and drop your linen!" Sadly, it's not a stretch to imagine Brother Boy getting locked away for being gay 20 years ago. What is a bit unbelievable is his therapist (Rosemary Alexander) who, hoping to write a book by "deprogramming" her middle-aged Tammy Wynette-wannabe patient, resorts to extremely unprofessional behavior that would get anyone in her field suspended.

The MVP award of Sordid Lives goes not to Burke or Newton-John but to Beth Grant, an actress late into middle age who, according to the press kit, is "best known" as Helen, the exploding bus passenger in Speed. Here, she captures the archetypal single Southern aunt to a tee, gossiping endlessly on the phone, constantly offering to feed people and snapping a rubber band on her wrist every time she craves a cigarette ("behavior modi-something-or-other").

Shores's directorial and screenwriting abilities still leave much to be desired. Sordid Lives feels like a play in perhaps the least successful way: It's composed of really long scenes that are mostly dialogue, with transition action imagined or implied only. Couldn't we go outside for at least one scene? And when LaVonda and Noleta suddenly decide, about two-thirds of the way through the story, to literally become Thelma and Louise, it comes out of nowhere. On the stage, this might have been a neat trick to shock the audience. On-screen, it elicits a big "Huh?" Having just spent more than an hour with these folks, couldn't we have a better buildup?

Shores also doesn't seem to know whose story he's telling. The movie begins with Latrelle's gay son Ty (Kirk Geiger) confessing all, but his tale is mostly irrelevant to the funeral happenings, even though we keep cutting back to his therapy escapades in L.A. (allowing for many L.A. theater-scene in-jokes). Brother Boy is the most captivating, comedic and pathos-laden character (many kudos to Leslie Jordan), but because he's trapped in an institution he can't exactly be our protagonist. Latrelle seems the best candidate, as her emotional epiphany is really the climax of the piece, but since she's been relegated to the sidelines for the first half, she doesn't have the impact she should.

 
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