Manners To Die For

At first blush, Serial Mom appears to mark a departure for John Waters. This time his lead actress is Kathleen Turner, rather than the mighty Divine. Even more unlikely is Waters' casting of Sam Waterston -- the most sober, not to mention somber, of actors -- as his leading man.

And in the film's opening scenes, Waters seems to be on even more unfamiliar turf than he was in his casting. This time he's got his eye on suburbia (I wasn't sure that the film was set in his usual Baltimore environs until fairly late in the film). But rest assured, Waters is typically rambunctious here. He has changed his approach, but not his target. Instead of starting with the grotesque, he begins with the "normal" and pushes it so hard that it becomes weird. Actually, Waters doesn't have to push very hard; he just heightens suburbia's essential weirdness.

Turner plays her character -- Beverly Sutphin, the titular serial-killer mom -- as the perfect mother, wife and citizen. Her problems come only when she takes each role to its logical conclusion. Give her kid a bad grade, and you're history. Ignore the directions of her husband the dentist, and your days are numbered. Not a recycler? Sorry.

The joke, of course, is that she's June Cleaver finally gone berserk, and Waters and Turner play it awfully well. Turner manages both to keep a sweetly plastic look on her face and to register explosively repressed emotion, while Waters makes sure that she has plenty of gross things to do. She rips out one victim's liver, then returns smiling to her flea-market booth with entrails stuck to her shoes.

Sam Waterston is surprisingly effective as her husband, Eugene. Waterston plays him as a man who suspects something is terribly wrong but can't bring himself to admit it, or to ask his wife the hard questions. He's both afraid for his wife and touchingly confused as to how all this happened.

But while the film has quite a few laughs in the first hour, it does finally run out of gas. That Waters could get an hour out of one necessarily repetitious gag is a tribute to his skill, and at times he seems to want to broaden his scope a bit and take on Christians for Capital Punishment in the same way he skewered racists in Hairspray. After all, Beverly merely wants to extend the reach of capital punishment and assure wrongdoers of swift retribution. She plays as a sort of local outreach of the Singapore government.

But other than a very funny scene in which the Sutphins attend church after Beverly is identified as a serial killer, Waters doesn't do very much with this idea. And from this point on, Waters turns his attention to satirizing the way criminals become celebrities. But America's appetite for true-crime stories is already so weird that Waters can scarcely improve on reality, so all of these jokes come off as rather obvious.

The movie regains its momentum during Beverly's trial -- specifically, the point at which she begins to defend herself. It won't make you forget a similar scene in Bananas, but Turner's Basic Instinct-ish cross-examination of one defendant is a great bit, as is the rage she feels toward a female juror (played by Patty Hearst) who insists on wearing white shoes after Labor Day.

In terms of the Waters oeuvre, Serial Mom fits somewhere between Hairspray and Cry Baby. The director runs his one joke into the ground, but not before he's gotten a good day's work out of it.

-- David Theis

Serial Mom.
Directed by John Waters. Starring Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston.
Rated R.

94 minutes.

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