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Definitely Not for the Easily Offended

In the first ten minutes of John Cameron Mitchellís (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) second feature-length film, Shortbus, moviegoers can expect the following: full-frontal male nudity, masturbation, auto-fellatio, exhibitionism, voyeurism, hetero sex, and a dominatrix forcing a talkative client into submission. None of the sex is simulated, all of it is as real as youíd see in porn (yes, that means shots of penetration and the money shot).

Rather than string together a series of sexual encounters, anonymous or otherwise, or focusing primarily on sexual acts (as Michael Winterbottomís recent 9 Songs did), Mitchell is interested in depicting straight and gay couples as they work through relationships issues, e.g., monogamy, sexual satisfaction, etc., but within the context of sex as the road to or an impediment to, personal fulfillment.

James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy), a gay couple in a long-term relationship, find themselves at an impasse. While Jamie gives James the emotional support he needs, he's also controlling, leaving James feeling stifled and overwhelmed, preferring self-love to physical intimacy with his partner. Jamie is also unfulfilled in his job as a lifeguard at a local gym, but finds some satisfaction in a personal video project drawn from different periods of his life, including his childhood. A neighbor, Caleb (Peter Stickles), keeps his camera trained on James and Jamieís apartment, growing increasingly concerned with the state of Jamie and Jamie's relationship. James and Jamie try to work their problems out with the help of a sex therapist/couples counselor, Sofia (Canadian singer and radio/TV personality Sook-Yin Lee).

Sofia is married to Rob (Raphael Barker). She works, he doesnít. Sofia and Rob are the straight couple seen earlier having sex. Sofia and Robís relationship looks solid, but it isnít. Sofia canít achieve an orgasm, eventually sharing her problem with James and Jamie. James and Jamie suggest Sofia go to the Shortbus, an underground sex club/salon that caters to every sexual orientation and fetish (plus music and screenings). The Shortbus emcee (Justin Bond), guides Sofia through the intricacies of the club. At the club, Sofia meets and befriends the tightly wound Severin (Lindsay Beamish), the dominatrix we met earlier working with a client. Meanwhile, James and Jamie meet Ceth (Jay Brannan), a male model that attracts them both.

Although moviegoers might assume that Shortbus is simply tricked-up porn with a storyline and characters, it is more than that, borrowing and updating from the avant-garde, independent cinema that long ago defined itself by challenging and overturning (if only temporarily) social and sexual taboos. But with porn readily available through every medium imaginable, artists hoping to challenge social structures and sexual hierarchies arenít challenging much by including real sex between actors in their films. If anything, Shortbus updates the liberation-through-sexual-exploration dramas (e.g., Looking for Mr. Goodbar) that coalesced into a sub-genre back in the 70s. Mitchellís decision to center the action on a sex club loosely based on Platoís Retreat, a sex club that had its heyday during the 70s, adds to the retro feel, as does the transvestite emcee that could have stepped out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Cabaret.

Story wise, though, Shortbus never manages to overcome its retro feel. Sure, Mitchell layers in comments about AIDS and STDs by having a character at the Shortbus offer Sofia condoms minutes after she enters the club and has another character, the former (closeted) mayor of New York City, say that he did everything he could to keep New Yorkers safe, but ultimately, the scene and character seem superfluous (because they are). More importantly, as the characters struggle to express profundity through dialogue, they instead slip into triteness and clichť. Jamesí character arc is also underwritten and undermotivated. With Sofia, itís hard to sympathize with her predicament, not because itís unimportant (quite the opposite), but because the solution Mitchell presents, colored as it is with an ill-fitting magical realist plot device (probably inspired by P.T. Andersonís Magnolia), feels forced and slightly desperate (because it is).

Although this may sound like Mitchell hasnít duplicated the success he achieved with Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Mitchell stays behind the camera this time), Mitchell does manage to create compelling characters, even if theyíre self-indulgent. Thatís partly a result of the (professional and inexperienced) actors, who improvised some of the dialogue (thereís good and bad in that), and their performances, which feel as raw and authentic as the graphic sex scenes we see them in. Plus, youíll never think of the ďStar-Spangled BannerĒ in the same way again (and thatís a good thing). Shortbus also provides strong evidence that Mitchell isnít a one-trick filmmaker. Mitchell has the talent to do more, and with Shortbus, he solidifies his status as an indie filmmaker worth watching.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars