ZERO STARS/**** Image D Sound D Extras C
starring Olivia Newton-John, Beau Bridges, Delta Burke, Bonnie Bedelia
written and directed by Del Shores
by Walter Chaw Essentially an extended drag shtick captured on surveillance-quality DV, Del Shores's Sordid Lives finds the playwright's stage production translated literally to the big screen (well, to the television screen) without, one presumes, the pace and the busyness that would have made it bearable. Poorly-aimed pot-shots at dysfunction (sexual, familial) share the stage with the classic "gathered for a funeral" plot that forms the basis of so many community theatre productions, mainly because no matter how ribald the comedy becomes, there will always be the opportunity for a sickening dose of sentiment at the final curtain. There's nothing suburban middlebrow consumers like better than a shot of the ol' pulpit to forgive all sins: round-in-the-round as buffet-dinner confessional.
Sisters Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia), Lavonda (Ann Walker), and their aunt Sissy (Beth Grant, better as this character in Donnie Darko) comprise the Beth Henley archetype of cornpone harpy trio in Sordid Lives. Together, they wax shrill about their wasted lives and the dead grandma's right to have a December/November fling with crippled lothario G.W. (Beau Bridges). The picture mines for laughs in the down-home names and the fact that G.W. has not one, but two peg legs--as satires of hillbillies go, it's not exactly knee-slapping material. Other disconnected vignettes feature Olivia Newton-John as a lesbian country singer, an oversexed transvestite and his frigid shrink, and Todd (Kirk Geiger), Lavonda's homosexual son, an actor who appears early on in a full-frontal gay play. Certainly excessive, the mortal crimes of Sordid Lives are that beyond nothing in it being particularly sordid ("banal lives" would be closer to the bone), none of it's at all funny, with the whole of it played with stage projection to static compositions.
With John Waters's early production still the best of the trailer-chic genre, Sordid Lives avoids controversy in favour of broad jabs at easy targets. It's amateur night on every level, and Shores doles out the close-ups and strident pronouncements with the arbitrary love of the chronically lacking in perspective. The problems of the piece beyond its essential fatigue can be traced to Shores's over-familiarity with the material: there's really nothing fresh about the picture's presentation; its barely-concealed superiority plays as patronizing as its condescending nods to sentimental pap. Texans are idiots, but they have hearts as big as the great outdoors--I get it already. The only positive thing to be gleaned from the experience is that one can only hope failure forestalls a "Greater Tuna" film.
Fox shepherds Sordid Lives to home video via a 1.77:1 anamorphic video transfer that suffers irredeemably from the decidedly low-fi source media. A rule of thumb should be that if one must use digital video for feature filmmaking, one should use the best camera rather than the blue-lighter from your K-Mart's electronics kiosk. The picture is blurry at times, phases badly in others, and generally suggests a home movie shot by dad on a Jack bender. Its lack of grain is so shocking and distracting that it actually, by the end, starts to resemble one of those local discount mattress commercials. The stereo audio, meanwhile, is essentially a mono track dressed up with the little Dolby symbol on the keepcase.
Fan of the movie, rejoice, as Fox gifts Sordid Lives with an eye-puncturing amount of special features meant, one can only surmise, to drive me bugfuck. The multiplicity of additional material here should answer once and for all the question of whether film criticism is a "real job." The feature-length commentary by Shores, producer Sharyn Lane, Bedelia, Grant, Geiger, Leslie Jordan, Rosemary Alexander, and Newell Alexander reveals that a lot of stuff was shot in chronological order, that theatre-folk are an incestual bunch who don't really care very much whether you know who or what they're talking about, and that anecdotes about homemade false teeth never get old. For all that, though, the commentary is more or less scene-specific, the actors offering a few unenlightening tidbits ("I created this character in the play, and now I'm playing this character in the film"). The revelation that Beau Bridges (not commenting on the film) was often consulted on how to cover certain scenes by the outmatched Shores is one of those things that Beau should have tried to quash--is it "libel" or "slander" when it's spoken? I can't remember.
"Stories by Del Shores and Sharyn Lane" is essentially a two-shot DV monologue that features the pair getting all moony about meeting Tammy Wynette and the nascence of their respective careers. An unbelievable sixteen minutes later and the next feature, "Uncut Songs," takes the stage with the Australian songbird providing versions of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Coming Home" in their entirety. Thirtysomethings who enjoyed their first sexual stirrings during Grease and Xanadu, this one's for you. Five deleted scenes with an optional cast/crew commentary are pretty much more of the same but looking somehow worse, and interviews with Shores & Lane, Bedelia, Geiger, Jordan, the two Alexanders, Grant, Ann Walker, Earl H. Bullock, and Sarah Hunley are the typical B-reel obsequious tongue baths that have the added pleasure of being partially regurgitated from the commentary. If you've ever wondered what it's like to be on a press junket, now's your chance to experience the craptavaganza first hand. Originally published: April 2, 2003.
111 minutes; R; 1.77:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 2.0 (Stereo); CC; English subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Fox