Writer-director Del Shores’ brand of comic Southern Gothic theater is broad enough on stage, but when brought intact to the screen in the form of his first effort behind the camera, “Sordid Lives,” it’s a screeching mess. One of the scribe’s several pointed satires centered on Dixie clans contending with death and intolerance, original play was a 1996 L.A. theater hit, following similar smashes such as “Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got the Will?” (made into a 1990 pic). But the broadness of this theatrical brand of affectionately twisted down-home humor, goosed by generous doses of camp, makes it especially difficult to re-create on the unforgiving screen, on which less is frequently more. Shores lets his cast loose to play to the back of the hall, ensuring that the tiny aud turning up during pic’s brief cinema run will be covering their ears.
Even by legit standards, a Shores play tends to be talky, and transferred to film, it becomes an avalanche of gab, paired with a tendency for arch shtick. Serving as a gum-chewing, guitar-strumming chorus, Olivia Newton-John gets things off to a kooky, rednecky start singing the title song.
But rather than allow his scenes to play out, Shores impatiently and clumsily cuts between three simultaneous settings: An L.A. shrink’s office, where gay Texan Ty (Kirk Geiger) spills regrets about his homophobic mom, Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia); the Texas home of Ty’s grand-aunt, Sissy (Beth Grant), who has to mollify distressed neighbor Noleta (Delta Burke) while playing go-between to conservative Latrelle and her lustier feuding sister, LaVonda (Ann Walker); and Wardell’s bar, where Noleta’s hubby, G.W. (Beau Bridges), is grieving over the death of his aged lover, who happens to be Latrelle and LaVonda’s mom.
It seems that ol’ mom stumbled out of the motel bed with G.W., tripped over his wooden leg and broke her head open.
In a fully realized movie, this might be the opening scene; but in this version, which blindly adheres to the stage edition, the potentially comic action is reduced to so much talk. And with Noleta out for revenge, the daughters fighting over arranging the funeral and Ty unsure whether he wants to go home for his grandmother’s burial, there’s more than enough on the movie’s plate.
Nevertheless, yet another setting is thrown in: The office of Dr. Eve Bolinger (Rosemary Alexander), a shrink specializing in so-called “reverse therapy” to make gay men straight. The doctor’s prize patient is cross-dressing Earl (Leslie Jordan), the brother of Latrelle and LaVonda. A disastrous set piece meant to lampoon the anti-gay contingent, the endless exchanges between a woefully misdirected Alexander and the unfunny Jordan bring the entire enterprise to a thudding halt.
Just as misjudged is a ridiculous episode in which Noleta and LaVonda take G.W. and the rest in Wardell’s bar hostage.
The movie simply has no chance to recover, even during the lengthy finale over mom’s casket that brings the dislocated family members together for one last round of overacting.
The sterling exception is Shores regular Grant, who is a pure, droll — and, thankfully, subdued — Lone Star gal from head to toe. Bedelia, given what she has to work with, resists indulging in histrionics, but her colleagues are out of control. Playing the shy, good gay hero of sorts, Geiger is drowned out in the noise.
Pic appears afraid of going outdoors, resulting in stifling claustrophobia, not helped by sub-par production values and a lousy digital video-to-film look.