Serial Mom (1994): United States – directed by John Waters
Rated R by the MPAA – contains some violence, bad language, sexual content/nudity, and creepy characters
I’m a fan of John Waters. His films aren’t necessarily the greatest ever, but he creates a unique world that, while it looks like the normal world, is vastly different. From his upbringing in Baltimore, Waters enjoyed delving into the lesser-known kinds of people. Meeting Divine and the other strange characters he used in such films as Pink Flamingos and Multiple Maniacs imbued him with a very interesting outlook on life and the world.
While his films aren’t technically perfect, and sometimes lacking, it is Waters’ perception of the world, and how he brings it to screen, that I find interesting. After his early movies, few of which were tame enough to earn an “R” rating from the MPAA, Waters moved into more family friendly films with Cry-Baby [reviewed here] and Hairspray. Even Cry-Baby retained his unique perspective on people, despite its “PG-13” rating.
Waters’ films through the nineties, until A Dirty Shame, were rated “R”, but they are still truly John Waters films. Serial Mom is one of these. The film focuses on a pretty, neat, normal suburban neighborhood, where dentist Eugene Sutphin (Sam Waterston) lives with his wife Beverly (Kathleen Turner), son Chip (Matthew Lillard), and daughter Misty (Waters regular Ricki Lake).
Theirs is a normal family, for the most part. Sure, Misty is into older boys and Chip is a bit of a horror freak, working at the video store after school. But they’re kids, and therefore allowed to be a bit different. Eugene is a normal dentist, and Beverly is your standard housewife. She is sweet and thoughtful, with a strong dislike for foul language, chewing gum, and people who don’t wear seatbelts.
Because her face is on the poster and the movie is called Serial Mom, you might imagine that Beverly keeps a secret from the rest of the family. She does, in fact, have several odd fetishes that she hides from the rest of the world. She enjoy making perverse phone calls to her neighbor (another Waters regular, Mink Stole), but when the police investigate she is so sickeningly sweet that they can’t imagine she would harm anyone.
Her addictions become manifest in slightly more violent ways, however, when Chip’s teacher describes him as an unhooked teen. This is when Beverly’s true self emerges, with the help of a blue station wagon. As the bodies mount both the police and the town start to worry. Beverly remains sweet to all but a few people, primarily those she does not like.
The movie is pure Waters, from the perfect neighborhood to the unique, addiction-addled characters. The acting is pure Waters, as everyone turns in an over-the-top performance filled with cheese. The characters are well-defined, and even supporting roles like Chip’s porn-addicted friend add color to the film.
Unfortunately, the film also contains many of Waters’ regular shortcomings. The pacing varies wildly, and again the film feels like it needs to end twenty minutes before it does. This isn’t because there isn’t enough material, it’s more that a natural climax is reached before the movie enters the denouement. It’s not that the last portion isn’t funny and amusing, it’s just that it tends to drag on.
Waters’ unique filmmaking style, combined with the odd actors and acting, makes up for some of the technical difficulties his films face. If you’re a fan of his work and his world, Serial Mom is a perfect addition to his filmography. If you aren’t familiar with John Waters, and don’t particularly care for strange characters, you might want to avoid this one. I, for one, am a fan of Waters’ work, and enjoyed Serial Mom in spite of its unevenness.