What seems like the perfect marriage between director and subject yields inconsistent rewards in John Waters’ diverting but uneven satire on guerrilla filmmaking, “Cecil B. Demented.” Despite an exhilarating start and game performances from Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff and a sexy young cast, the comedy suffers by comparison with last year’s far more clever and sustained “Bowfinger,” which covered similar ground. Artisan’s best bet in the U.S. would be to aim for the cine-literate teen audience that made the “Scream” franchise cook.
Set to music by samples wizard Moby, which amusingly toys with blockbuster movie themes, the fun title sequence takes digs at multiplex fodder as it shows theater marquees advertising a Pauly Shore marathon of comedy classics; “Les enfants du paradis,” finally dubbed in English; and multiple screens showing only “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.” This segues to a terrific heist scene, carried off with a flair and energy that the film’s subsequent set pieces often lack.
Pampered Hollywood star Honey Whitlock (Griffith) slinks around her hotel suite, alternately cooing for reporters and unleashing her diva-monster side to her hassled assistant, Libby (Ricki Lake).
Meanwhile, film terrorist Cecil B. Demented (Dorff) and his faithful flock the Sprocket Holes have infiltrated the Baltimore theater holding the charity premiere of Honey’s latest picture. Planting an arsenal of bombs and weaponry, they seize the building, crying, “Power to the people who punish bad cinema,” and kidnap Honey, who shrieks, “Call Jack Valenti!”
Back in the Sprockets’ hideout, the captive star is introduced to her fellow cast and crew in Cecil’s planned movie, “Raving Beauty.” After being subjected to a trashy makeover, Honey shoots the first scene, playing the vengeful wife of a failed art-film exhibitor, who vows to punish supporters of mainstream cinema.
Cecil then reveals his vision of “ultimate reality” and his master plan to shoot the rest of the film with real people and real terror. The Sprockets have sworn off sex until the movie is completed, vowing to channel their raging hormones into their art.
So far so good. But when the crew hits the streets, the idea starts running out of steam, despite no shortage of entertaining gags, industry references and film homages. Cecil and Co. invade a screening of “Patch Adams — The Director’s Cut,” forcing Honey to be a part of the sabotage and capturing the event on film.
Next they hit a Maryland Film Commission event, where casualties start piling up, and from there, the set of the $ 65 million “Forrest Gump” sequel, “Gump Again.” During their rampage, they enlist a crowd of action movie fans to physically fend off an angry family audience.
Honey learns that her flagging box office stock has risen thanks to her terrorist activity, and audiences even say she’s looking younger. She also gets negative press, with Rosanne interviewing her tell-all ex-husband (Eric Roberts) and Libby revealing her insatiable sexual appetites. Unsurprisingly, it’s not long before Honey becomes a Demented convert.
The comedy generally is elementary but enjoyable, with the young thesps playing the Sprockets — all of whom have tattoos illustrating their allegiance to filmmakers like Otto Preminger, Andy Warhol, Sam Peckinpah, Kenneth Anger and Rainer Werner Fassbinder — supplying some amusing turns.
These include Jack Noseworthy (“U-571”) as a hairdresser ashamed of his heterosexuality and Alicia Witt as porn star Cherish. Her All-Anal Movie Marathon — including “Rear Entry,” in which she co-stars with a gerbil — is one of many moments that represent something of a return to the gleeful bad taste of Waters’ pre-“Polyester” films.
As the material starts strong and loses momentum, so does the director’s control, with the action becoming almost as chaotically handled as Cecil’s own opus.
Veteran Waters collaborator Vincent Peranio’s production design is lively and colorful, especially Cecil’s lair, an abandoned theater decked out in junkyard psychedelia. Use of music also hits the target, including the Sprockets’ song “Demented Forever” and the “No Budget” rap.
Dorff delivers all the manic edge necessary to portray the deranged punk artist willing to die for his vision, while Griffith shows herself to be a good sport, with jibes about Honey’s age, her vanity, her tantrums and demands and her position in the industry, first defending and then renouncing it.