Movie review: John Waters takes hilarious, deadly aim at mainstream movie-makers in 'Cecil B. Demented'

Melanie Griffith is Honey Whitlock, a beloved Hollywood movie star who is kidnapped by a lunatic film director in " Cecil B. Demented."
Melanie Griffith is Honey Whitlock, a beloved Hollywood movie star who is kidnapped by a lunatic film director in " Cecil B. Demented." (Handout photo)

Andy Warhol, Rodney King, Kenneth Anger, the Waco siege, David Begelman, the Weather Underground, the Danish film collective Dogma 95.

If that confluence of names strikes you as humorous, you're the ideal audience for "Cecil B. DeMented," John Waters' playful skewering of Hollywood and its fringes.


Stephen Dorff plays the title character in "Cecil B. DeMented," a wild-eyed cinema radical who rails against mainstream, profit-mongering movies and is trying to make his own celluloid manifesto, a no-budget, cinema verite screed against the Hollywood studios that are dedicated to "remaking foreign films and greenlighting movies based on video games," and perpetuating "phony life-affirming endings."

Cecil's movie will document his own brand of cinema terrorism - committed by his loyal band of followers, the Sprocket Holes - the first act of which is to kidnap Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) while she attends the premiere of her latest blockbuster. "Cecil B. DeMented" opens with the tightly choreographed takeover of Baltimore's venerable Senator Theatre, just one of Waters' beloved local movie palaces that shows up for a splendid cameo appearance.


"Cecil B. DeMented" unfolds in high Waters style, its often awkward dialogue and uneven acting offset by an infectiously antic esprit de corps. The situations and characters are so improbable, so stylized, it's impossible to believe "Cecil B." for a minute, but once you realize that it's Waters' world, it's just as impossible not to have a rollicking good time.

For movie fans who despair of the state of American cinema, the in-jokes are hilarious: Cecil's obsessive rage is completely understandable in a world of all-"Star Wars," all-the time, Pauly Shore marathons and dubbed versions of "Les Enfants du Paradise." Local film commissions' slavish devotion to Hollywood business is sent up with perfect pitch: A typical press conference announcing Baltimore as the hitherto "secret" location for "Gump Again" (a "Baltimore: Hollywood of the East" banner fluttering hopefully in the background) turns into a Waters-esque debacle of mishigoss, mayhem and errant oysters.

One of the funniest elements of "Cecil B." is Honey's conversion to the Sprockets' cause: A reluctant co-conspirator at first, she begins to soften toward them when someone mentions that she looks a lot younger since hooking up with Cecil. It's no coincidence that Patty Hearst, now one of Waters' most reliable repertory players, shows up as the mother of one of the Sprockets; Honey's ambivalence toward her captors eerily echoes the questions that still dog Hearst 30 years after her own abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

In interviews, Waters has insisted he doesn't share Cecil's rage, that he would be a hypocrite if he did. But it's hard to believe that he doesn't agree that a sequel to "Forrest Gump" or the director's cut of "Patch Adams" portend a certain kind of apocalypse. When DeMented yells that Hollywood "stole our sex and co-opted our violence," who other than Waters can be talking? His belief in the redemptive power of pulp reveals itself when the Sprockets take refuge in theaters devoted to Hong Kong action pictures and pornography. (The lobby of the latter is decorated with a poster for Monica Cigars).

But looking for deeper meaning in a John Waters movie is a fool's exercise. It's enough that he has brought yet another example of his bent vision to the screen with his characteristic blend of innocence and naughtiness. He's helped considerably by an imaginative production design by Vincent Peranio, who has turned the Hippodrome into a decadent cinema lair, and fabulous costumes by Van Smith, who has devised an especially cunning vest out of a Chanel jacket.

Waters' devoted legion of fans will celebrate the return of their underground hero to his "Multiple Maniacs" roots while he deploys the explosions, elaborate crowd scenes and shoot-outs of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. His last movie solemnly announced the death of irony, but with "Cecil B.," Waters proves that in his hands it will live, however demented, forever.

'Cecil B. DeMented'

Starring: Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff, Alicia Witt, Adrian Grenier

Directed by: John Waters

Rated: R (strong crude sexual content, violence, language and drug use)

Running time: 88 minutes

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