Writer-director Del Shores’ 2000 comedy “Sordid Lives” could be described as John Waters meets Jeff Foxworthy, a collision of you-might-be-a-redneck tackiness and camp grotesquerie, like the Deep South made over by drag queens. Despite mostly withering reviews, the film picked up a cult following in LGBT circles, inspiring a short-lived television series in 2008 and now a sequel, “A Very Sordid Wedding,” that brings some actors back and replaces others, but mostly doesn’t mess with the chain-smoking, big-haired irreverence that appealed to arthouse audiences 17 years ago. Shores’ yen for broad theatrics is an acquired taste — and its stylistic indifference is more naturally suited for stage than screen — but fans of the original won’t be disappointed, even as it seems unlikely such a belated sequel will expand their ranks.
Set in Winters, Texas, the name of the real-life rural town where Shores (“Daddy’s Dyin’: Who’s Got the Will?”) was raised, “A Very Sordid Wedding” continues to exploit the tension between this conservative, Southern Baptist locale and the gay subculture that insistently challenges its assumptions. In the first “Sordid Lives,” a closeted young man sees coming out to his mother as such a terrifying prospect that he consults 27 different therapists in Hollywood before heading back home to do it. In the sequel, that same man, Ty Williamson (Kirk Geiger), has been touring the country with his husband, holding marriages in 49 states to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. And his mother, Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia), has changed with the times, too, fighting the bigots at her local church, which is holding an “Anti-Equality Revival” to gin up support for forbidding gay marriage in the county. (The county clerk, in a non-speaking role, bears an uncanny resemblance to Kim Davis, who got her 15 minutes of fame for refusing to authorize marriage licenses in Rowan County, Ky.)
Though Ty’s wedding and the local fight over “religious freedom” gives the film a natural endpoint, the Sordid Lives-iverse is an expansive one, and Shores writes subplots across the ensemble. After surviving an attempt at conversation therapy in a mental institution, Brother Boy (Leslie Jordan) tries to work on his drag queen act in nearby Longview, but an escaped serial killer, dubbed “the Hitchhiker Murderer,” takes him on an exciting (if harrowing) road trip to the big city. Latrelle’s aunt Sissy (Dale Dickey), who went to incredible lengths to quit smoking in the first film, is permanently off the wagon here, but she’s been reading the Bible cover-to-cover in an effort to reconcile God’s word with the Supreme Court’s. Latrelle’s sister LaVonda (Ann Walker) and her best friend Noleta (Caroline Rhea) are both looking for love and find it — one in the arms of an old flame (Newell Alexander), the other in an hospital bed across the hall from where her awful mother is recovering from a stomach ailment.
“A Very Sordid Wedding” could generously be called a slice-of-life, but Shores’ impulse to serve the roughly two dozen characters roaming around Winters makes it feel more like a television episode than a movie. The writer-director ambles toward the nuptials promised by the title, but he mostly collects outrageous moments and one-liners: a Bible-thumping convenience-store clerk whose prayer list includes defeating and jailing Hillary Clinton; a “Singspiration” event presided over by a portrait of Rue McClanahan (the matriarch on the TV show); a notebook in which Sissy jots down the proper terms for referencing different races and ethnicities. A few of the gags land, most of them don’t, but the overall rhythm is stilted and rudderless, flattened further by d.p. Paul Suderman’s point-and-shoot camerawork.
The original “Sordid Lives” struck a chord with many gay viewers who grew up outside big-city sanctuaries, and the sequel has the opportunity to reveal how much has (and hasn’t) changed in Central Texas in 17 years — a period in which the law has progressed from DOMA to marriage equality, but not without resistance from certain regions. There’s something touching about Shores’ hope that a town like Winters can change colors like the streaks of eye shadow that cake his characters’ faces, but his impulse toward Southern-fried cartoonishness cheapens and undermines it. His Winters is a personal place that’s made to seem curiously alien.