“Shortbus” is the cinematic equivalent of a relationship that begins with sex on the first date and then wants to get more serious when you’d rather just have more sex. Unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry, John Cameron Mitchell’s ambitious attempt to merge his characters’ active sexual lives with more conventional emotional content is playfully and provocatively entertaining for roughly the first half, but loses staying power thereafter when investment in the uncompelling characters’ problems is requested. The lubricious action, which comes in a lively and varied set of permutations, puts this way over the line for most distribs and exhibs, so while pic will be an immediate must-see for certain audiences, especially gays, in limited theatrical release, it will find its true and lasting home on DVD.
Mitchell, in the wake of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” has finally fulfilled a dream that a number of filmmakers had in the early 1970s, that of plausibly working hardcore material into a legitimate dramatic picture. From the eye-popping opening scene, sex pervades the action, and it is clearly the writer-director’s intent to start outrageously so that, after the second or third time the actors get it on, it won’t seem so unusual anymore.
Still, the polymorphous couplings are more inventive and entertaining than the emotional content. Mitchell’s exuberant, playful approach and unfailing good humor feel far better matched to the characters’ experimental probings than to their purported anxieties.
The central figures here are embarked upon problematic sexual quests; the main woman is a relationships therapist desperate to experience her first orgasm, and one of the men is suicidal, but there’s far too much fun in Mitchell’s sexual wonderland for such negativity to last.
Pic’s intro may be the coolest movie welcome to New York City since the opening of “West Side Story.” In the shadow of a looming Statue of Liberty, a beautifully abstracted animated model of the city is swooped down upon and through to locate the scenes of the action, and some vigorous intercutting to jazz accompaniment shows there’s lots going on.
In one apartment, a young man starts playing with himself and does some contortions to orally finish the job. A straight couple seems intent upon re-enacting much of the Kama Sutra in one session. A dominatrix does her thing on a wimpy guy in a room over Ground Zero, and it all climaxes with a nifty joke at the expense of the Jackson Pollock school of painting.
The fellow in the tub was James (Paul Dawson), a former hustler who’s been going with the dense but hunky Jamie (PJ DeBoy) for five years. Now they’re dickering with “opening up” their relationship, so they visit therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) to discuss the possibilities.
In the process, they learn her secret, that she’s been faking orgasms with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker), so the boys invite her to a “Shortbus” party, a sort of downtown bohemian sex mixer where music and campy chit-chat prevail in one room, lesbians convene to chew things over in another, and whoever wants to dives into the action in the orgy cafeteria. “It’s just like the ’60s except with less hope,” intones the event’s sardonic ringmaster, Justin Bond.
Hunky James and Jamie have little trouble finding a third, a lad named Ceth (Jay Brannan), for their branching out experiment, a move that culminates in a memorable daisy chain with the threesome, just for a change of pace, singing “The Star Spangled Banner” while doing things that were no doubt long illegal in many states.
Despite a ready welcome mat, Sofia decides the Sapphic crowd doesn’t do it for her, bonding rather with the dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish), whose own barriers to intimacy are broken through only with great difficulty. Pic’s theme overall has to do with the problem modern city dwellers, at least, have in feeling genuine emotion and letting other people “penetrate” them in ways other than physically, which is easy.
But Sofia’s dilemma is in the end one-dimensional and hard to dramatize meaningfully, while the boys, despite James’ closely held angst, scarcely seem tormented once they break the ice by sharing Ceth and never become multi-faceted enough to generate sincere interest.
Secondary characters such as Rob and a voyeur (Peter Stickles) who eventually joins the action aren’t nearly as arresting as Bond and an old gay gent who says he was once mayor of New York.
So it’s fun while the fun lasts, which will vary for different viewers. But despite the variable outcome, Mitchell earns major points for daring such a project, finding a cast willing and able to carry it off, developing the story with the thesps so the sex integrates with the general flow of events (while remaining dominant), achieving a smooth and nimble visual style, and suffusing everything with an intense curiosity and generous spirit.
All craft elements feed into the vibrant vibe, as do the energizing and sometimes witty musical elements.