A sentimental movie may sound like a contradiction in terms for shockmeister John Waters, but that’s precisely what his latest film, “Pecker,” is. Sweet story centers on a working-class teenager who becomes a superstar photographer despite himself. Toplined by Edward Furlong, and shot on Waters’ home turf, Baltimore, this amiably light satire doesn’t have much new to say about the culture of celebrity, nor is it biting enough in the manner of the helmer’s previous efforts. Fine Line should expect modest returns for a pleasant but ephemeral spoof that may disappoint Waters’ hardcore fans while not recruiting many new devotees.
In recent years the writer-director seems to have lost his audacity, moving away from taboo topics toward gentler material. With the exception of a few shots of rats having sex — a typical gag in the work of Waters, who’s always been enamored of gross-outs and shock value — “Pecker” is more in the vein of the naive and nostalgic “Hairspray” and “Cry Baby” than the black comedy “Serial Mom.” In fact, if “Pecker” had been made a decade ago, it likely would have starred Johnny Depp (the lead in “Cry Baby”), a more appropriate choice for the new hero than Furlong.
Furlong plays the title role, so named for his childhood habit of “pecking” at his food. A congenial, slightly goofy adolescent, Pecker works in a Baltimore sandwich shop, where he also cultivates his hobby, snapping photographs of his customers, neighbors and family. Pecker’s family is referred to as “culturally challenged” — and with good reason: His mom (Mary Kay Place) dispenses fashion tips to the homeless clientele at her thrift shop; his older, gay-friendly sister, Tina (Martha Plimpton), hires go-go boys to dance at the local club, the Fudge Palace; his younger sister, Little Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey), is addicted to sugar; and his grandmother, Memama (Jean Schertler), Baltimore’s “pit beef” queen, engages in prayer sessions with her talking statue of Mary.
Pecker stumbles into fame when his work is “discovered” by Rorey Wheeler (Lili Taylor), a savvy New York art dealer who becomes smitten with him. Never mind that his photographs are amateurish, grainy and slightly out of focus; they somehow strike a chord with New York’s artsy crowd, and soon there is a big public show and instant fame.
Essentially an unassuming, small-town boy, Pecker learns the hard way that there’s a price to be paid for overnight stardom and overexposure. Turning into an art sensation threatens to destroy the low-key lifestyle that served as his inspiration in the first place. Among other things, Pecker’s new celeb status means that his buddy Matt (Brendan Sexton III) can’t artfully shoplift anymore. His sweetheart, Shelley (a miscast Christina Ricci), who runs a laundromat, becomes distressed when the press label her a “stain goddess” and mistake her good-natured “pin-up” poses for pornographic come-ons.
Here and there, Waters tries to energize “Pecker” as a witty send-up of the contrast between Baltimore’s blue-collar milieu and the New York art world, though he sentimentalizes his working-class protagonists to such an extent that they lose their bite — and encourage viewers to feel superior to them.
As scripter, Waters must have realized that his narrative is not only slight but ephemeral, for he surrounds Pecker with a gallery of eccentric characters, played by actual celebs — also a staple of Waters’ work. Here, the director employs former beauty queen Bess Armstrong, who plays Dr. Klompus, and Patricia Hearst (who had a terrific cameo in “Serial Mom”) as an eccentric New Yorker. Waters regular Mink Stole appears as the precinct captain.
Furlong projects charm but lacks the authority to carry the film; he’s much more interesting when surrounded with other characters. Each member of the ensemble has some nice moments, though the gifted Taylor, Plimpton and Ricci are underused, playing narrowly conceived roles that lack shading.
Lagging behind public awareness of the culture of celebrity, “Pecker” induces some pleased smiles but is utterly forgettable.