Doing for the cheesier Ross Hunter-style bigscreen soaps of the early/mid-'60s what "Far From Heaven" did for the plush Douglas Sirk melodramas of a decade earlier -- albeit with tongue planted much further in cheek -- writer/star Charles Busch's "Die Mommie Die!" is an enjoyable genre homage-cum-parody.

Doing for the cheesier Ross Hunter-style bigscreen soaps of the early/mid-’60s what “Far From Heaven” did for the plush Douglas Sirk melodramas of a decade earlier — albeit with tongue planted much further in cheek — writer/star Charles Busch’s “Die Mommie Die!” is an enjoyable genre homage-cum-parody. Feature debut for vet stage director Mark Rucker hangs together better than the last Busch play-to-film translation, “Psycho Beach Party.” It should prove suitable for urban niche auds, with similarly solid if modest ancillary prospects.

While he’s created amusing parts for all the lead actors, Busch is definitely the main attraction here. His semi-retired “Hit Parade” songstress/movie star Angela Arden is a beautifully mannered parody of the aging bombshells (like Susan Hayward) whose late careers were propped up by such fatuous, mostly Hunter-produced vehicles as “Madame X,” “Where Love Has Gone” and “Portrait in Black.”

Forever swimming in her own closeup soft focus, Angela is a hilarious pastiche. Busch wisely doesn’t push for laughs, instead getting them — plenty of them — though detailed faux-elegant gesture and mellifluous line readings.

Surviving member of a twin-sister vaudeville act who’d gone on to solo stardom (while her sib met a tragic self-destructive end), Angela has the proverbial “it all.” Except, of course, happiness.

Her marriage to Stanley Kramer-like message picture producer Sol Sussman (Philip Baker Hal) has long since soured. He considers their pretty-boy son Lance (Stark Sands), who’s just been kicked out of college for being a sexual magnet to the (male) teaching staff, an embarrassment. And daddy’s girl daughter Edith (Natasha Lyonne) never misses a chance to ridicule mom as a pill-popping nymphomaniac.

At pic’s start, Angela is having an affair with tennis instructor/gigolo/failed actor Tony Parker (Jason Priestley). When Saul returns from a dismal fundraising trip to Europe, he puts the kibosh on their affair pronto. What’s more, he won’t divorce Angela, and vows she’ll never have fun in this town again.

Choking on a tightened leash, Angela kills Saul by dipping his nightly suppository in arsenic. However, Sol’s will cuts Angela out, leaving most of the estate to maid Bootsie (Frances Conroy).

Better organized as a narrative than the funny but uneven gagfest “Psycho Beach Party,” “Die Mommie Die!” ratchets up outrageous situations and purple dialogue while staying faithful to the turgid melodramatic essence of the films it’s patterned after.

Perfs resist full-on farcical caricature, with Priestley again demonstrating comic flair and Nora Dunn getting a swell cameo as a Hedda Hopper-esque gossip hound. Thomas G. Marquez’s costumes, Joseph B. Tintfass’ production design and Kelly Evans’ garish color photography fondly recall the worst of Beverly Hills/Universal Studio taste circa 1966. Angela’s horribly “glamorous” duds were separately designed by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case; they’re worth the price of admission themselves.

Die Mommie Die!

Production

An Aviator Films,Ken Kenwright Ltd. presentation. Produced by Dante Di Loreto, Anthony Edwards,Bill Kenwright. Executive producer, Lony Dubrofsky. Co-producer, Frank Pavich. Co-executive producer, Neil Ellman. Directed by Mark Rucker. Screenplay, Charles Busch, based on his stage play.

Crew

Camera (color), Kelly Evans; editor, Philip Harrison; music, Dennis McCarthy; production designer, Joseph B. Tintfass; set decorator, Robert "Sandy" Adams; costume designers, Thomas G. Marquez, Michael Bottari, Ronald Case; sound (Dolby Digital), Jon Ailetcher; assistant directors, Tony Alexander, Courtney King; casting, Jeff Greenberg, Collin Daniel. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Dramatic Competition), Jan. 20, 2003. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Angela Arden - Charles Busch Edith Sussman - Natasha Lyonne Tony Parker - Jason Priestley Bootsie Carp - Frances Conroy Sol Sussman - Philip Baker Hall Lance Sussman - Stark Sands Sam Fishbein - Victor Raider-Wexler Shatzi Van Allen - Nora Dunn

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