February 28, 2013

Serial Mom

Imagine if suburban moms everywhere just...snapped. All the minutiae of daily life, the endless little grievances of maintaining a home, of being a wife and mother, of putting up with the monotony of the PTA and the neighbors and all the stale, banal conventions of middle American values, building and building until they just couldn't take it anymore. John Waters' Serial Mom (1994), starring Kathleen Turner as a Baltimore housewife, imagines for us. 

Turner plays Beverly Sutphin, whose descent into serial killing starts with a little harmless social anarchy: she's been harassing one of her neighbors (Mink Stole) with obscene phone calls (in a disguised voice). She giggles at the thought of this little secret. The police have been in the neighborhood asking questions, but nobody would ever suspect Beverly. But then, Beverly is angered by her teenage son's math teacher, who thinks he's too obsessed with horror movies and that Beverly is to blame. She backs over him with her car, and soon it seems that anyone who gets under Beverly's skin is a potential victim. Not rewinding your video before returning it to the rental store? Dead. Wearing white shoes after Labor Day? Dead. Beverly can't stop.  There are too many rule-breakers out there who evade any kind of consequences for their utter disregard for the social conventions that matter to Beverly.

Her bewildered family (husband Sam Waterson, adolescent kids Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard) doesn't know what to do, and meanwhile the police are putting two and two together, waiting until they have enough evidence to nail Beverly for six gruesome murders. (The piece de resistance is when Beverly bludgeons a woman to death with a leg of lamb while "Annie" sings "Tomorrow" on the television set.)

Serial Mom is a bit slapdash, in typical John Waters form, but it's such an audacious little slice of insanity that it's hard to be overly annoyed by its faults. This is, after all, a funny movie about social anarchy. It doesn't hold up very well as a movie (the sense of pacing is minimal, and at times you wish Waters would build things up with more restraint: Beverly is already cuckoo by the time the opening credits finish, so we don't get the pleasure of watching the progression from "normal" to "crazy.") But as a piece of satire on suburban mores, it's pretty watchable stuff, and it certainly taps into the culture's commercialization of crime and criminals. The people's obsession with Beverly and the accusations against her turns--like all American obsessions--into a capitalist endeavor by the end of the picture. She's a celebrity, and Suzanne Somers (who makes a brief appearance) is vying to play her in a TV-movie. And her daughter is even selling shirts and pins with the emblem "Serial Mom" emblazoned on them. Meanwhile, Beverly agrees to act as her own attorney (Charles Manson/Ted Bundy style), and it's fun to watch all the little surprises she has up her sleeve, geared toward winning over the jury.

With Scott Morgan, Walt MacPherson, Justin Whalin, Patricia Dunnock, and Mary Jo Catlett. Written by John Waters. 95 min. ½

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