When "Sordid Lives" does what it does best -- showing Southern gals in the full flight of rabid self-denial -- it's as screamingly funny as this subgenre can get. But helmer-scripter Del Shore apparently thinks he must add poignant confessions, gay polemics and heart-tugging family redemption and the high fizz eventually goes flat.

When “Sordid Lives” does what it does best — showing Southern gals in the full flight of rabid self-denial — it’s as screamingly funny as this subgenre can get. But helmer-scripter Del Shore apparently thinks he must add poignant confessions, gay polemics and heart-tugging family redemption and the high fizz eventually goes flat. Dropping at least 20 minutes of unsightly drama and failed farce could still save the many good elements for theatrical life. Otherwise, its sure-fire cast — led by a terrific Bonnie Bedelia — will be shipped off to cable land.

Like a live-action version of “King of the Hill” in hyperdrive, pic (based on the helmer’s play) features some ornery down-homers who remain convinced of their common sense even when every move puts them in deeper doo-doo. The doo-doo that they do so well is adultery, with the latest round of musical beds in the tale’s unnamed small town having resulted in the death of old Peggy, who tripped over the misplaced wooden legs of her married lover, G.W. (Beau Bridges).

Her daughters, LaVonda (Ann Walker) and Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia), and younger sibling Sissy (Beth Grant) gather to plan the wake, and to make various brands of trouble. They also have to deal with their Airstream-dwelling neighbor Noleta (Delta Burke), who is G.W.’s wife, and with Latrelle’s son Ty (Kirk Giger), a soap star in L.A. who hasn’t been able to get Mom to wise up to his sexual orientation. And they plan the release of their older bro from a nearby nuthouse. Brother Boy (played to perfection by Leslie Jordan, who toplines “Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel,” based on his play) has been given 25 years for being a “homer-sexual” — although his real crime is thinking that he’s Tammy Wynette.

Things lead up to a big bust-out at the loony-bin, indicating that, for Shores, nothing succeeds like excess. But when you have a Tammy-obsessed tranny, trash-talking trailer queens, a sex-crazed grandma who swings both ways and Olivia Newton-John as a lesbian country singer, why would you also need an insane asylum? Ty’s multiple sessions with his shrink tell us nothing we don’t know from dozens of other coming-out sagas, right down to that sorry speech about a friend who died of AIDS.

If some bits go too far, others are only threadbare. Segs with Newton-John singing solo, although sprightly, seem isolated from main story. Most egregious are parts with Brother Boy getting therapized by a female doctor (Rosemary Alexander) whose couch-side manner closely resembles rape. The compassion Shores has for every other character evaporates when we get to these two-handers, and the blouse-busting doc becomes a repository for every misogynistic urge (a dynamic made weirder when you know that Alexander is the helmer’s former sister-in-law).

By sorting out “Sordid Lives,” Shores could still shore up his comic forces. Shot-on-vid pic looks good; lighting, editing and musical touches are fine.

Sordid Lives

Production

A Del Shores production, in association with Daly/Harris & Davis Classics. Produced by Sharyn Lane, Victoria Alonso, Max CiVon. Directed, written by Del Shores, based on his play.

Crew

Camera (color, digital beta), Max CiVon; editor, Ed Max; music, George S. Clinton; production designer, Steve Cubine; costume designer, Jim Echard; sound, Robert Gravenor; associate producers, Steve Cubine, Monica Deeter, Jime Echerd, Jourdan E. Krauss; assistant director, Brian Terwilliger; casting, Annette Venson. Reviewed on videocassette, Seattle, June 5, 2000. (In Seattle Film Festival.) Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Latrelle - Bonnie Bedelia Noleta - Delta Burke Sissy - Beth Grant LaVonda - Ann Walker Brother Boy - Leslie Jordan Dr. Eve - Rosemary Alexander G.W. - Beau Bridges Ty - Kirk Giger Bitsy Mae - Olivia Newton-John
With: Sarah Huntley, Newell Alexander, Earl H. Bullock, Mitch Carter, Sharon Alexis, Mary-Margaret Lewis, Lorna Scott, Carl Balton, Dale Dickey, Terry Brannon.

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