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SHORTBUS (director/writer: John Cameron Mitchell; cinematographer: Frank G. DeMarco; editor: Brian A. Kates; music: Yo La Tengo; cast: Sook-Yin Lee (Sofia, Canadian therapist), Paul Dawson (James), Lindsay Beamish (Severin), P J DeBoy (Jamie), Raphael Barker (Rob), Peter Stickles (Caleb), Justin Bond (Drag Queen, salon owner, himself), Jay Brannan (Ceth), Alan Mandell (Tobias, the Mayor), Ray Rivas (Shabbos Goy); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Howard Gertler/Tim Perell/John Cameron Mitchell; ThinkFilm; 2006)
“Oozes hardly more than body fluids in its telling tale.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

From writer-director John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) comes this bittersweet comedy-drama post-9/11 look at a bunch of alternative styled beleaguered Manhattanites openly exploring their sexuality (one dude gives himself a blow job, flagellation from a dominatrix and cunnilingus on a Steinway) and their feelings. Shortbus is semi-improvised and presents unsimulated sex. It’s explicit, raunchy and becomes tiresome only when its novelty wears off and it deals with the emotions. It’s basically your typical exploitative (almost) porno masquerading as art. Mitchell has said it’s an anti-Bush way of looking at people who are candid and sincere in finding ways to love each other through sex.

It’s filmed as if it were a cabaret revue. It tells of the intimate sexual problems of a handful of people: a real-life handsome young gay couple, James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (P J DeBoy); Chinese Canadian couples’ therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) and her white American hubby Rob (Raphael Barker), who are straight; and a lonely dominatrix named Severin (Lindsay Beamish). Things come together when James and Jamie bare their souls in a therapy session with Sofia and invite her to their hangout in a swinging sex club called Shortbus for a party celebration. The drag queen singing owner of the salon (Justin Bond) tells us the name is derived from the yellow bus that takes kids with special needs—physical handicaps, learning disabilities—to their learning facilities. The title serves as a metaphor for those who are exclusionary and have different needs.

The film relates the subjects’ problems as we tour the club and in between comedy routines, heartfelt gab, sexual encounters in playrooms and staged songs we see how the adult club serves as an adults-only playground for uninhibited sex and also as an experiment for a new Utopian society of free love and no hate. Sofia loves hubby, but rues that she never had an orgasm and feels she needs one to save the marriage. Rob feels inferior to his successful wife and feels impotent because he’s only a volunteer for a meals-on-wheels program. James is a suicidal depressive former escort service hustler now a spa lifeguard, who struggles to feel it. “I see it all around me but it stops at my skin. I can never let it in.” He’s so fucked-up he’s never really let anyone fuck him. His cute partner Jamie, a former child actor, is overbearing and loves James with all his heart but is afraid he’s losing him. While Severin escapes into her fantasy world but reveals to the therapist she befriends that she wants more to life than whipping her clients, such as a so-called normal relationship where she experiences real human interactions and lives in house with a family and dog named Spot.

The film in its search through all sorts of sexual activities tries hard to find the good in one’s heart for those who are willing to be open. The idea sounds better than how the film developed (every character is restricted to having a story told around them that limits them to being one-dimensional boobs); though it’s not a bomb it still oozes hardly more than body fluids in its telling tale. It also features Ceth (Jay Brannan) as a cool gay model, who forms a threesome with our featured gay couple and the couples’ ardent admirer Caleb (Peter Stickles) who wants the couple to stay together and find eternal love. There’s also someone elderly named Tobias (Alan Mandell) who wanders around the club and says he was the former mayor (supposedly Ed Koch) and, in an artificial characterization, the brash ex-mayor appears as a tired and timid soul who’s now sorry he never came out-of-the-closet and apologizes for not doing enough about the AIDS crisis that developed during his time in office.

The nonprofessional ensemble cast was chosen not for their acting skills but if they could perform on the screen without fear of exposing themselves. They pass that test, but the story itself feels contrived and as forced as all the sex acts. It’s hardly erotic or titillating, which doesn’t mean that’s good or bad but only that it comes up short in interpretation (leaving things too simplistic to count for scoring much). It also features bouncy songs by Scott Matthews, Yo La Tengo and others and a most colorful CGI cityscape figurative animation set that calls attentions to city blackouts.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”