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The End of Irony

John Waters' Pecker Fits On Every Plate

Anyone who saw last year's rot-bomb Great Expectations may well exhibit caution before seeing another film about a young man fighting the good fight against ruination in the big, bad world of art promotion in New York City. One suspects that director John Waters saw it too, and once recovered from the sloth and self-loathing concomitant to watching someone else's crap, felt pretty fabulous that he, on the other hand, was in the process of working on a quality picture with quality talent.

Waters thumbs his nose at mediocrity and cynicism with his new release, Pecker, a darling film: smart, hilarious, and utterly watchable. Viewers will be pleased to find that there's not a dysfunctional family member in the entire cast. Waters' trademark revelry in camp, kitsch, and the obscene has transformed into a glistening reverence for wholesomeness, ingenuity, and sincerity. His characters' idiosyncrasies do not serve to define their persons; instead, these people are lovable first, weird at second glance.

A successful veteran of outsider filmmaking, Waters passed muster by featuring the freakish and marginalized in America in earlier films like Polyester, Pink Flamingos, and Desperate Living, later taking a fanciful step into the mainstream with Hairspray and Serial Mom. He now occupies prime seating in celebrity's upper echelon, appearing as easily in The New Yorker as he does at a Hamptons lawn party. One wonders to what extent Pecker takes an autobiographical slant, considering that fame and privacy are issues central to the story. Regardless of Waters' thematic objectives, from the film's outset, it becomes obvious that he had a terrific time making this movie-the bulk of the scenes feel as though they were dreamed up during a champagne bubble bath.

Teenaged Pecker takes endless photos of his family and neighbors in blue-collar Baltimore (Waters' hometown) because he thinks, naively, that art is fun. Everyone is supportive of his pastime, or at least gives him an honest middle finger as he snaps their pictures. He and his buddy Matt (Brendan Sexton III, endearing in an East Coast punk routine) make up enviably clever games in the local supermarket and regularly shoplift pants-loads of film for Pecker's cheap 35mm camera. His girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci) happily gives him demure pinup-girl poses whenever she deigns to take a break from policing rule breakers in her laundromat, the Spin 'N' Grin. And Martha Plimpton, turning in a delightful performance as Pecker's trashy sister Tina, lets him take pictures of the male strippers in the trade bar where she emcees.

In true Water's style, Pecker is surrounded by an eccentric cast. Grandma, Pecker's biggest fan, vends pit beef sandwiches from a stand out in front of the family home and uses ventriloquism to make her Virgin Mary statue speak. Mom (Mary Kay Place - brilliant) runs a thrift shop where she builds homeless folks' self-esteem by helping them coordinate snappy outfits ("Don't be afraid of fashion," she proclaims, draping an electric-blue scarf around an elated hobo's neck).

Pecker is a special guy; for one thing, he has such a great time being a teenager that the viewer feels strange pangs of nostalgia for the olden days of accountability-free youth. When all that is good in his life turns sour due to the wide dissemination of his photographs by a New York art gallery owner (a radiant Lili Taylor), it's wonderful, sweet stuff watching Pecker turn those pesky lemons into lemonade. Fancy art critics praise his work: "A humane Diane Arbus..." lauds one. "Yes, but with a wonderful streak of kindness." But as suspicious Shelley warns him, "These people don't go to laundromats--they go to dry cleaners ... don't become an asshole, Pecker." Photographers Cindy Sherman and Greg Gorman turn in cameos as themselves, Patty Hearst, Bess Armstrong, and Mink Stole round out the ensemble cast, and miraculously, Christina Ricci's curse of unwatchability (anyone suffer through The Opposite of Sex?) has been lifted. Stewart Copeland's upbeat musical score is a marvelous, yippy-yappy floral bouquet of cute choruses and twangy guitars which might kill you in your living room but is perfect for Pecker.

The screenplay flows far better than most Waters films .The scenes are well-paced; the actors time their lines naturally and with heart. Production values have remained high, but instead of the glossy suburban shine of Serial Mom, Pecker's cinematography has a more earthen, translucent, high-budget indie film look. However, there is a vague sense that underneath the action, especially during a particularly choppy Ritalin gag, the ghost of an out-of-breath, makeup-caked Divine lurks, making obnoxious, ill-timed self-pitying announcements from Waters films of old. In the midst of the well-adjusted hubbub, this is oddly reassuring.


rated R
1 hour 27 minutes

Edward Furlong
Christina Ricci
Lili Taylor
Brendan Sexton
Mary Kay Place