“Chip, our mother is Charles Manson!” Ricki Lake exclaims to her brother upon learning of their perfect suburban mom’s double life in John Waters’ latest expose of society’s hypocrisies, normal people’s naughty thoughts and the secrets that lie behind suburbia’s well-manicured facades. Fun, almost endearing in its cheeky irreverence, but also rather mild and scattershot in its satiric marksmanship, “Serial Mom” provokes chuckles and the occasional raised eyebrow rather than guffaws and gross-outs. B.O. prospects appear moderate, as pic doesn’t have the bite or sustained high comedy to propel this from cultdom to mainstream hitsville.
To all outward appearances, Baltimore hausfrau Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is June Cleaver incarnate. An endlessly supportive wife to dentist Eugene (Sam Waterston), she runs the ideal household, keeping the home spotless and serving up a delicious dinner every night to her family, which includes college student daughter Misty (Lake), who has extensive boy problems, and high-schooler son Chip (Matthew Lillard), a gore-film junkie.
As soon as they all leave for the day, however, Beverly jumps into action, making obscene phone calls to a silly neighborhood woman. Her chain is pulled, however, by Chip’s teacher, who dares to suggest that some therapy would help the youngster curb his addiction to horror pix. Without hesitation, Beverly runs the man over with her car for his impudence and heads home, where she can admire her signed photograph of Richard Speck and tune in Joan Rivers hosting her new TV show, “Serial Hags,” devoted to women who love mass murderers.
Once started, there’s no stopping Beverly, and by the time she’s arrested and charged with murder, she has killed six people. Firing her attorney for entering an insanity plea, media favorite Beverly argues her case herself and emerges as a feminist heroine who will be played in the TV movie by Suzanne Somers.
Waters’ trademark social mockery, campy humor and celebration of the tawdry are all in ample evidence. After an excursion into more benign, PG and PG-13 territory for his last two efforts, “Hairspray” and “Cry-Baby,” it’s good to see him back where his sick humor and taste for raunch have more room to roam.
But the problem is not only the wispy, clothesline plot that has no more complexity than a series of blackout sketches. Waters’ recent, bigger-budget films don’t seem subversive in the way that his bargain-basement indies did, because the object of their loving derision is a 1950s white-bread America, derived mostly from television, that has already been parodied to death and seems at too much of a remove from anything vital or on-the-line. With David Lynch having plumbed this territory in more insidious and disturbing ways in “Blue Velvet” and “Twin Peaks,” it’s tough to shake audiences up with any new revelations about nice families of four in homes with two-car garages.
Waters’ distinctive humor could also be better amplified and sustained if it were goosed up by more stylized visuals; the decor is right, but if the lensing and technique were as audacious and cockeyed as the ideas and jokes, the material would be socked over more impressively.
At one with Waters’ charming bad-boy spirit, Turner turns in a game, rambunctious star performance that hits the right note between satire and seriousness and gives the film such weight and grit that it has. With little to do, Waterston fits less effectively into the Waters universe, while Lake and Lillard as the kids progress from amazement to genuine enthusiasm for their mom’s newfound fame.
Supporting cast is peppered with the usual assortment of Waters-world notables, including Mink Stole, Traci Lords and Patricia Hearst. Basil Poledouris’ flavorful score no doubt deliberately contains numerous echoes of Bernard Herrmann.