CECIL B. DEMENTED(director/writer: John Waters; cinematographer: Robert Stevens; editor: Jeffrey Wolf; cast: Melanie Griffith (Honey Whitlock), Stephen Dorff (Cecil B. DeMented), Alicia Witt (Cherish), Adrian Grenier (Lyle), Larry Gilliard Jr. (Lewis), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Raven), Jack Noseworthy (Rodney), Patty Hearst (Fidget’s mother), Eric M. Barry (Fidget), Riki Lake (Libby), Mink Stole (Mallory), Kevin Nealon (himself); Runtime: 87; Artisan Entertainment; 2000)
“The story is really irrelevant.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
What can you say about this set in Baltimore film by the king of bad taste, John Waters, except it is what can be expected from the director whose type of rebellious childish low-budget indie films have now become passe since his peak days of the 1970s. That’s when he made “Pink Flamingos.” Now his satire has become more cable TV sitcom-like than outrageous. It is ironic that the director made a film railing about the poor quality of a Hollywood film and has made a film that is equally as bad, if not worse. This is a shoddy production, the comedy is lame, the acting almost non-existent, and the satire is sophomoric, taking pop shots at an easy target such as Hollywood– but shots that have no sting. If I laughed more, then I could have found some justification for the film. At best, this “Demented” could be seen as a TV sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” or a straight to video movie release. As a full-length feature, it ran out of gas shortly after the initial kidnapping scene and went quickly downhill due to a lack of subtlety and the film’s inability to be challenging or get at what is really troubling about pop culture. It certainly can’t be because the theaters still make popcorn in coconut oil and people who go to theaters in the mall talk during the film.
The story revolves around the title character, Cecil B. Demented (Dorff), the tyrannical and publicity seeking tousled hair leader of a guerrilla troupe of cinema terrorists and his crew of revolutionary filmmakers, known as Sprocket Holes. They kidnap pampered superstar Hollywood actress Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) at the Baltimore premiere of her latest movie and force her to star in their own guerrilla production, a film to be made in “ultimate reality.” They bring her to their headquarters, an abandoned theater in a garage decked out in crass psychedelia. Demented rants that he is quite willing to die for art and will do anything to make his film.
The movie invades recent history to play on the real story of Patty Hearst as the victim of a political kidnapping who during her ordeal appeared to be brain-washed into accepting her captors’ cause, which becomes the theme for the film. Patty has a small part as the concerned mother of one of the guerrilla crew members.
The kidnapping of Honey at gunpoint and her transition from ‘reluctance to act’ in their film to her enthusiasm about changing her image and acting in their film, made for some of the most amusing scenes. There was comedy in seeing the guerrillas shouting “Power to the people who punish bad cinema,” while she is crying out, “Call Jack Valenti!” The kidnapping scene had some energy in it before even that became tiresome.
There were some gentle digs at Hollywood: from poking fun at a Pauly Shore film marathon to the mall showing only “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” films; the expensive remake of “Forrest Gump” being taken over by the guerrillas; “Les Enfants Du Paradis” panned for being insultingly dubbed in English; mocking the Maryland Film Commission; and, the “Patch Adams” film showing of a director’s cut in the mall. These were easy targets and the comedy wasn’t that funny or radical. It might have been funny on paper but when acted out it seemed to be mild stuff, things even mainstream films do in a more daring way these days.
Melanie before her conversion to the cause of indie films, is acting mean-spirited to her long-time assistant (Riki Lake). She asks her to get the hotel manager to tell if Pat Nixon screwed in the Presidential Suite when staying at the hotel and she also refuses to go to her premiere in a white limo, requesting only a black one.
Melanie is pleased to learn that she has become very popular doing her new role as she is now perceived as a cult movie heroine, revitalizing her dying career. Her new image starts with her satanic makeup, as applied by Satan-lover Raven (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Her co-star is a druggie comically taking any kind of drug, Lyle (Adrian Grenier), who is supposedly doing a parody of a Method actor. Everyone in the film is bursting at the seams thinking about sex but Cecil has outlawed sex until the movie is completed, so they are sexually frustrated and some are even confused about what kind of sexual orientation fits them. Former porno star Cherish (Alicia Witt), whose film “Rear Entry,” is playing in an all-anal film marathon in which she co-stars with a gerbil, is now asking for legitimate acceptance in her role in this indie; while Jack Noseworthy, as a hairdresser who is ashamed of his heterosexuality, is asking for forgiveness for being straight.
The story is really irrelevant. The thing here is if the characters can shock you and if the film hits your funny bone, then it might be somewhat pleasing. For me, it came up close to empty in all respects. I’ll take my deranged films from Andy Warhol anytime, whose stories have more of an edge. Here, Dorff manages to be good enough in his role as the Abby Hoffman characterization of a punk who has gone completely mental as an artist; while Griffith is a good sport taking in all the remarks about Honey’s age, her self-centered nature, her tantrums, her phony public demeanor and her defense of the kind of film she made a reputation on as a Hollywood star. But I wouldn’t call her performance acting, as she was mainly around to be used as a foil for the comedy. The satire was not tough enough to make this a biting film, but rather one that has no claws to scratch and no gumption to really antagonize anyone but the Christian right-wing moralists. And since it can still at least do that, I guess, the film has a little fire in its belly. By the way, Water’s stated in an interview that the film got its title “Cecil B. Demented,” because that’s what he was called in an early film review.
REVIEWED ON 11/19/2000 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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