MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Edward Furlong (Pecker), Christina Ricci (Shelly), Mary Kay Place (Joyce), Martha Plimpton (Tina), Brendan Sexton III (Matt), Lauren Hulsey (Little Chrissy), Jean Schertler (Memama), Mark Joy (Jimmy), Lili Taylor (Rorey Wheeler), Mink Stole (Precinct Captain), Bess Armstrong (Dr. Klompus), Patricia Hearst (Lynn Wentworth)
John Waters has to be one of the oddest auteurs in the history of American cinema. Here is a man with an undeniably gifted, uncanny sense of humor and a reckless streak that has redefined what can be shown on-screen, who has spent his entire career offending as many people as he possibly can. Quite often, his offensive work has also been brilliant satire. And, even when it isn't on that level, it's still good, trashy fun if you leave your scruples at the door and don't mind watching a 300-pound transvestite consume dog feces.
Waters' output has slowed considerably in the last 20 years, and many of his recent films have been tamer, PG-rated fare. However, his latest film, "Pecker," is a move back in the direction of the raunchier, more wild Waters style. In this film, Waters, a self-proclaimed "fame hag," has made a pot-shot ode of his own to sudden stardom and all its misery. Unfortunately, while "Pecker" should mark the return of a master to his best form, it instead shows that Waters' comic sensibilities seemed to have dulled with the years, and his ability to use "I can't believe he just showed us that" humor has been usurped by his own descendants, younger filmmakers like the Farrelly Brothers, Mike Judge, and those guys behind the vulgar kids of "South Park."
In my opinion, Waters has done his best work when skewering middle class America in films such as those that make up his so-called "Bourgeois Trash Trilogy": "Polyester" (1981), "Hairspray" (1987), and "Cry-Baby" (1990), all of which take place in his home town of Baltimore. Waters has a sledgehammer way of making the normal abnormal by populating everyday locations with a cast of bizarre characters that are too unreal not to exist. You think there's no way these people could be fictional because no one's imagination is that weird. Well, Waters' is. In "Pecker," he does something similar by using the titular character's penchant for photographing everything he sees as a means to show the bizarre underworld that exists beneath the thin fabric of contemporary American life. There's a vulgar side to everything, and Waters revels in it.
However, half-way through the film, Pecker becomes the toast of the pompous Manhattan art scene, and the movie aims its sights at the silly, pedantic world of bourgeoisie artistic excess and its tendency to catapult people to sudden fame and fortune for a series of gritty photographs. Waters wants to spear those black turtle neck-wearing, goateed, Martini-drinking, prim and proper New Yorkers who go into the Whitney Art Museum, take a look at a pile of discarded beer cans, and praise it for being a modern masterpiece of pain and anger--basically, all those people who are the opposite of his own, wonderfully kitschy self. A worthy cause, no doubt, but as someone once noted, it's hard to satirize something that's already a satire of itself. And, if anything is a satire of itself, it's the New York art scene.
Edward Furlong stars as Pecker, and he plays him as an innocent naïf who unwittingly ruins the lives of all his friends and family once his photos make him and all of them famous. It is sometimes hard to believe these people can consider their lives ruined by Pecker's success when you look at the lives they lead: Pecker's girlfriend (Christina Ricci) is the loud, rules-obsessed owner of a laundromat; his mother (Mary Kay Place) outfits homeless people with bizarre fashions for pennies at her thrift store; his father (Mark Joy) runs a bar that's losing money because everyone is going to The Pelt Room, the fully nude strip club across the street ("Pubic hair and liquor together are illegal," he asserts); his older sister (Martha Plimpton) works as a bartender as a gay male strip club called The Fudge Factory; his younger sister (Lauren Hulsey) is an obsessive sugar freak; his grandmother (Jean Schertler) is a lovable nut who thinks her Virgin Mary statue "miraculously" speaks (Waters loves Virgin Mary jokes); and his best friend (Brendan Sexton III) is a compulsive thief. Bizarre as they are, in the crazy version of Baltimore that exists only in Waters' films, these people are right at home.
Whats wrong with "Pecker" is the fact that none of this is particularly funny. Crazy characters in and of themselves are not humorous; it's the situations they are placed in and their reactions to those situations that generate the laughs. In "Pecker," most of the situations are so greasy and depressing that even the bizarre sight of watching the infamous Patty Hearst self-consciously rearranging her breasts in front of a mirror falls flat.
None of the characters invite any kind of identification to speak of, with the exception of Pecker himself. However, Furlong has not yet grown into the fine actor he promised as a youth in "Terminator 2" (1991) and "American Heart" (1993). He seems to be at an awkward stage where he should come off as a young man, but still looks, sounds, and acts like a confused kid. He has the right innocent look for the part, but he doesn't have enough vitality to hold the center of the film (he's no Divine, that's for sure). Furlong simply doesn't make the character interesting enough to truly grab the viewer's attention, and since he's the most normal (he even has a conscience!), he also lacks the bizarre angle.
Waters throws in just about everything but the kitchen sink in an attempt to get the movie's pulse up. Most of the humor is more sex-related than scatological, with one gratuitous close-up of a woman's pubic hair that comes and goes so quickly, you're not sure what you saw until it shows up as one of Pecker's photos. It says a great deal about the film when even a shocking close-up of genitalia still isn't enough to get it moving. Instead, "Pecker" merely drags along, coming to its close in a kind of orgiastic celebration of everything not high class. Waters has a grand statement to make here, but his vehicle of choice simply isn't enough to make it worth caring about.
©1998 James Kendrick