Oddball director toys with the mainstream in 'Pecker'
John Waters may not be out to shock anymore, but he hasn't lost his adoration for the gauche of low-rent suburbia.
The only potential mainstream affront in his latest cheap-but-charming yarn is the title -- "Pecker" -- which turns out to be nothing more than a nickname bestowed on the main character because of his eating habits (although we never actually see him eat).
But "Pecker" is nonetheless 100 percent a John Waters movie, populated by oddballs and loaded with transparent irony at every turn.
The picture stars boyish and bird-like Edward Furlong as a burger-flipping, compulsive amateur photographer with a junker second-hand camera who is "discovered" by art maven Lili Taylor and thrust into the New York gallery scene, from which he almost immediately wants to escape.
"Pecker" opens with an establishing walk around Pecker's ignoble, wood-paneling and paint-peeling Baltimore 'burb as he snaps away roll after roll on his Kodak. We first meet his mom (Mary Kay Place) at her thrift shop where she sells even leather jackets for a quarter, then his dad (Mark Joy) at his near-deserted bar, unfortunately located across the street from a new strip joint where bull dyke dancers berate the customers as they disrobe.
Next we visit his sister (Martha Plimpton, almost unrecognizable in dense Mary Kay make-up and a teased black wig), who manages a gay strip bar called the Fudge Palace, and his girlfriend (Christina Ricci), a laundromat attendant perfectly content (nay, obsessed) with her menial job.
All of them are subjects for Pecker's photos in this unmistakably Waters-esque world, where there exists an uncanny balance between the trashy and the endearing that is upset when sweetly naive Pecker gets hugely famous literally over night. (Insert shots of spinning magazine covers here).
If this sounds like a lame cliche waiting to happen, don't worry. Pecker doesn't become a phony who learns in the end that he belongs back in Baltimore with the people who love him. He knows that already and is barely in New York long enough for Waters to take a few goofy, underhanded swipes at high society before abandoning his celebrity and moving home -- which in the cynical art world is misinterpreted as a sly career move ("Pecker: The man who turned down the Whitney!" screams a magazine cover).
In the mean time, his success has wreaked comedic havoc on the subjects of his snapshots. His best friend (Brendan Sexton III), an ace shoplifter, finds his trade ruined by his notoriety. His sugar-addicted little sister becomes a Prozac-popping ward of Social Services. And Vogue wants to do a fashion spread at his mom's thrift shop.
"Pecker" drags a bit in the middle, but as our hero tries to regain his old life it picks up from merely diverting to genuinely entertaining.
Waters is a master of corny sincerity. Who else could have characters express passion by shouting "Shelly, I love you more than Kodak!" or realize an artistic epiphany in "the brilliant green of a grass stain"?
The man knows what his fans expect and he delivers, with a mock adoration for WalMart atmosphere and measured but joyously egregious overacting -- even from Ricci, reigning ingenue of the abstruse.
Despite being arguably Waters' most mainstream movie to date, "Pecker" does not disappoint.
The cast also features Waters veterans Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce and Patricia Hearst, with cameos by photographers Cindy Sherman and Greg Gorman.