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Sordid Lives
2000 - R - 111 Mins.
Director: Del Shores
Producer: Victoria Alonzo, Max Civon, J. Todd Harris, Sharyn Lane
Written By: Del Shores
Starring: Olivia Newton-John, Kirk Geiger, Sarah Hunley, Newell Alexander, Beau Bridges, Earl H. Bullock, Beth Grant, Delta Burke, Leslie Jordan
Review by: Jake Cremins
   

No funeral would be complete without hysterical screaming and an Olivia Newton-John performance.
'Sordid Lives' strives to be a good wacky comedy, and nearly makes it. I did feel a kind of affection for it when it was over: the cast is a talented and funny one, and some of the scenes are hilarious, and when the movie works, it really works. Too bad, then, that the technical details are so shoddy, and that some of the characters keep interrupting the looniness with unwanted bulletins from the real world.

The movie has been written and directed by Del Shores, from his stage play about a kooky group of Texans and their reactions when Grandma Peggy dies. You see, Grandma Peggy hit her head on a motel sink and had a brian hemmorhage, because she tripped on a pair of wooden legs, because G.W. (Beau Bridges) had taken them off and put them in the middle of the floor, because he and Grandma Peggy were having an affair. Peggy's daughters and G.W.'s wife are apoplectic, and spend half of the movie in Peggy's sister's living room, eating the funeral buffet and talking a blue streak about the whole thing.

It all sounds too precious for words, but the weird thing is that this works pretty well, with pungent dialogue and good acting (Bonnie Bedelia and Ann Walker play the daughters, anal-retentive and easy-going, respectively, Delta Burke is G.W.'s wife, and Beth Grant shines as Sissy, Peggy's sister). The scenes in Sissy's house are the best in the film, as the women mourn, reminisce, argue, laugh, and manage to squeeze in local gossip anywhere it will go. Leslie Jordan is the second-best thing in the film as Brother Boy, a gay man who's been locked in a mental institution for twenty-three years and spends his time dressing as Tammy Wynette and unintentionally sending his therapist into blinding rages. (Peggy was his mother, and committed him.)

If the whole movie had had the zany energy of these scenes, it would be a treasure. Unfortunately, the film is saddled with Bedelia's son Ty (Kirk Geiger), another gay man who is now living in Los Angeles and working, of course, as an actor. He spends most of the film talking to his therapist, in scenes that are well acted enough, I guess, but don't belong in this movie. These scenes are not funny, but what's worse is that they're not supposed to be: they're deadly serious monologues that add nothing to the story, and will sound awfully familiar to anyone who's seen, say, 'The Boys in the Band.' This character should have been gone before filming started.

There are also some interminable scenes in the local bar, in which Bridges, Earl Walker, and Sarah Hunley talk to each other in conversations that sound way too rehearsed to be amusing, and go on forever. Everyone keeps interrupting and stopping at exactly the right moment, even when two conversations are being carried on at once, and I got so distracted by the stagy theatricality of it all that I kept forgetting what they were talking about. Stuff like this can work, barely, in a stage play--and probably did, back when this was a stage play--but professional movies overlap dialogue so that we can believe it's spontaneous. (As an answer to our prayers, two of the women from Sissy's house finally arrive with guns, but takes an awful long while.)

And threatening to drag all of this down is the filming technique itself. 'Sordid Lives' has been shot on digital video instead of film, no doubt to save on the budget, but they should have held out until they could afford better. Everything is lit well enough, and sometimes the image is quite clear, but there's something inherent in the videotape itself that throws the whole thing into sharp relief. It looks fake. Except for a few brief moments when the amateurish look of the movie is overwhelmed by the sheer talent in front of the camera, it's tough not to be aware that we're watching actors reciting lines; with a film based on a play, this is nearly fatal. Adding to this is an amazing plethora of boom mikes and other equipment reflected in guitars, car windows, hanging pictures, eyeglasses, and just about anything else with a shiny surface. And during the final scenes at Peggy's funeral, rare is the shot of the body when we *can't* see her breathing.

Still, I liked the movie's spirit. The serious notes that strike successfully are the ones that come subtly, as when Peggy's friend Bitsy Mae (Olivia Newton-John) sings a hymn at the funeral entitled "Just As I Am," a musical rebuke to her daughter trying to explain away Peggy's dalliances. And Brother Boy gets a climactic scene in the institution that manages to be meaningful and hilarious at the same time. There are all kinds of little physical details that work wonderfully, like the decorations in Sissy's house and the way Bedelia crosses her legs as though hoping they'll fuse together. The hairstyles alone could inspire their own film about a hole in the ozone layer breaking over Texas. But when the pathos is laid on thick it becomes boring, and the artificiality of the video image is too strong to ignore. This needed a changed script, and a different camera.
 
Movie Guru Rating
Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable. Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable. Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable.
  2.5 out of 5 stars

 
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