Cecil B Demented

Year: 2000
Production Co: Arctic Productions LLC
Director: John Waters
Writer: John Waters
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Melanie Griffith, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Alicia Witt, Ricki Lake, Roseanne Barr, Eric Roberts

John Waters has his fans, and one of the reasons is because he's one of cinema's great mavericks, much like the directors his characters at on point reveal they have tattooed on their arms.

Being aware of his tastes and profile in the industry I'm sure one of his main artistic concerns is to rail against the Hollywood establishment and the corporate, committee-led filmmaking that saturates movie culture, and this movie might have worked better as a polemic against that if it hadn't crammed that philosophy so obtusely down your throat as you watched it.

The structure, the characters, the premise and the plot are all fine in and of themselves. It's the constant reminders about where he's coming from that niggle, ending up like an irritating person next to you in the cinema who explains the creative intent of every decision while you're trying to watch it.

Water's message – that we're being spoon fed increasingly beige-flavoured mass entertainment by a slim strata of commercial interests – is sound. Just tone it down a bit.

Hollywood starlet Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) is in Baltimore to introduce a screening of her latest saccharine Hollywood weepie, fawning for the cameras and dignitaries but revealing what a bitch she is when nobody's around but her put-upon assistant (Ricki Lake), complaining about having to schlep to such a cultural backwater and desperate to get back to LA.

Meanwhile, the staff at the cinema holding the premiere are all surreptitiously speaking in rhymes into walkie talkies, alluding to some nefarious scheme they're counting down to.

Turns out they're all renegade underground filmmakers, and their plan – carried out with ramshackle aplomb – is to kidnap Whitlock and force her to appear in their guerilla movie at gunpoint, making a statement about film, art, Hollywood and the artistic process in doing so. They believe the artistic vision trumps everything and that the ends (even kidnapping) more than justify the means.

While the police and her hangers-on search desperately for any sign of Honey, she meets her unhinged captors from the gang's ringleader and director, who calls himself Cecil B DeMented (Stephen Dorff) to the death-obsessed makeup and hair girl (a very early role by Maggie Gyllenhaal).

You're not really surprised when Honey starts to see their point of view, finding she wants to do honest work and rejecting the studio-made rubbish that's made her a star, and by the time the gang take over a drive-in to premiere their shot-and-run masterpiece she's a bottle-blonded, tattooed version of her former self.

It's all a pretty nebulous mess on screen, and having not seen any of Waters' other movies I can only hope he shows a level of talent that justifies his reputation elsewhere.

But when it was all over, two conflicting aspects stuck with me. The first was the casting of Griffith as the spoilt Hollywood airhead. Despite her pedigree Griffith's frankly a terrible actress. Did Waters know and use that, her breathy, shallow style a deeply buried and all-too-clever comment on how vacuous her character (and the industry that enabled it) was?

Then, just when you think you've seem some nuance, the attractive female character (Alicia Witt as Cherish, Honey's costar) turns out to be a sexpot who's only interested in getting laid, a lazy and myopically male stereotype that made it seem like Waters hadn't given the character more than five minutes' thought while writing the script.

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