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Cecil B. Demented   A-

Artisan Entertainment

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Waters
Writer: John Waters
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Melanie Griffith, Alicia Witt, Adrian Grenier, Mink Stole, Ricki Lake, Patricia Hearst, Kevin Nealon.

Review by Rob Vaux

Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff) is a director with a plan. Sporting Otto Preminger's name on his forearm and a mania in his eyes unseen outside The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he's going to save the silver screen from the hell of mainstream Hollywood crap. He's going to make the ultimate underground movie, using his band of "cinematic terrorists" to launch an all-out war against business as usual...and then put it on film. No multiplex will be safe from them, no preening starlet protected from their wrath. They're fanatic. They're ruthless. They're not going to have sex until principle photography completes. And with the Patty Hearst-like kidnapping of superstar Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith), they've got the box office muscle to make a big splash on opening weekend.

For those of you unfamiliar with the world of John Waters, Cecil B. Demented may come as a shock. Waters is not what polite circles would call "the right sort": he once got a transvestite to eat dog feces on-screen. But he also combines a vicious wit with an absolute disregard for good taste to create some of the strangest -- and funniest -- underground movies ever made. You may not like what he does, but it's hard to ever forget it. Demented is an biting homage to his guerrilla roots, portraying Cecil and his merry band of Sprocket Holes as they first kidnap and then convert the manipulative Honey in an effort to launch a cinema revolution. In the process, Waters skewers every aspect of mainstream Hollywood, using the truly demented Demented (played with suitable zealotry by Dorff) as a proxy howl of rage. We watch the Sprocket Holes -- with boom mikes welded onto shotguns and handguns hidden in popcorn machines -- blast their way through teamsters, producers, and the insidious Maryland Film Commission in order to finish their film, reveling in the mayhem they cause and the sacred cows they destroy.

Of course, it wouldn't be a John Waters film if it didn't morally offend its audience at least once. Pick your moment: the theater of masturbating porn-goers, the goblet full of goat's urine, the arrhythmic jerkings of a seven-year old heart patient...if you can't find something here that disgusts you, you're obviously not trying. Such deliberate crassness is part of Waters' plan. By provoking such a visceral emotional reaction in his audience, he demonstrates how bland and milquetoast most Hollywood fare is. Mainstream movies, he insists, are afraid of provoking a reaction because controversy won't sell tickets. His crudeness flies in the face of all that, mixing the vulgarity with genuine cleverness to fire its barbs home. Besides, he asks, how is pornographic gerbil-stuffing any less repulsive than, say, the Flintstones sequel or Patch Adams?

While big-budget Hollywood takes the brunt of his wrath, he spares plenty of ammo for the other side as well. Demented and his crew of Sprocket Holes resemble nothing so much as film school snobs gone bad -- the ponderous, pretentious defenders of "art" which they can barely define, much less create. While Waters revels in their freakish qualities (and clearly has affection for them), their fanatical devotion ultimately comes off as deluded and self-indulgent. And, lest we forget, Cecil B. Demented saves some pertinent barbs for the audience itself...the slack-jawed mouth-breathers who wallow in sentimental tripe, flock to mass-released mediocrity, and substitute a broken rating system for genuine critical discourse. Hollywood may have created the monster, but we the filmgoers have fed and nurtured it, and Waters ensures we don't forget our part in the horror.

Cecil B. Demented shows eerie signs of embracing the very homogeneity it seeks to condemn: there's gunfights in here that match some Schwarzenegger flicks and Griffith obviously hails from the other side of the cinematic tracks. But it uses those tricks for its own subversive ends, and eventually ends up doubling back on any attempt to pigeonhole it. There may never be a real Cecil B. Demented (which is probably a good thing), but Waters himself comes pretty darn close. We need filmmakers like him out there to keep challenging the status quo; with the scathing satire of Cecil B. Demented he reminds us why.

Review published 08.18.2000.

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