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Movie Review: 'Serial Mom' is best when the mom is at her worst

Remember her? How could you forget her? She dominated your life like a Colossus of Toads.

She was ...


Not your mom or my mom, but the mom we measured our moms against and by whose standards we found ours wanting. She was the '50s myth of Mom, the Meta-mom, the Robo-Mom who got up and put on her freshly pressed dress, stockings and heels and went cheerily down to the kitchen at the crack of dawn to fix bacon 'n' eggs for the family, her eyes glittery as Home Shopping Network diamonds, her smile like a crack in a nuclear reactor leaking incandescence into the atmosphere.

She was perfect! And when we looked at our poor mom, that sad, put-upon, oh-so-hassled lady -- grouchy, surly as a drunk awakened from a good coma, in a frayed purple robe, sloshing milk on Sugar Crisps with a snarl, her hair all ratty, her voice shrill and close to breaking -- well, we wondered: What's wrong with Mom?

All these years later, it has taken John Waters to tell us: Nothing.

That woman with the bright eyes and the love of vacuuming that made our moms look so deranged -- she was the nutcase! She was the psycho killer. She was the screwball. She was the bull-goose amphetamine-crazed loony tune.

Waters isn't a subtle filmmaker, or a particularly supple one. His works all have a kind of earnest flatness to them, a technical anti-adventurousness, that can make them seem even campier than they are. But he has a wonderful comedy mind and a true gift for latching onto a key idea and crushing the humor out of it. He sees things in a way that no one else will ever or has ever seen them, to his greater glory and our greater amusement.

Thus "Serial Mom" rides the line brilliantly. It invokes the Mom-icon in all its rigorous '50s glory in the form of Kathleen Turner's Beverly Sutphin, then twists it slightly and sends it on a course to the darker suburbs of hell, all while deftly maintaining a mild tone of shocked disbelief. It helps to no end, of course, that Turner plays Mom to the nines. She's like a nuclear-powered Eveready Bunny with a meat cleaver.

Turner's Mom, slightly puffy with bourgeoise flesh, in a blinding assortment of cheery perfect-gal clothes, lives in a nice home in suburban Baltimore with a mild dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston, never milder) and two adorably dysfunctional kids (Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard). She's June Cleaver and Ellen Anderson mulched into one; but so rigidly programmed is she that under the bright patina of cheer there lurks a counter-life, a network of seethingly hostile impulses.

There's really not much more to the film than the sheer, giddy goof of watching Mom whack various vandals of the family altar like a Manchurian Candidate. Waters hasn't thought it out in any sophisticated way, and is even less interested in theory or explanation; no Simon Oakland-type comes in, as at the end of "Psycho," and explains it all. Nor is "Serial Mom" really a "parody" in any real sense of that word. It lacks sophisticated irony, and it doesn't send up the form of another genre and gently twist it upon itself to reveal absurd contradictions.

The plot unrolls from his central conceit without a bit of tickling. Beverly, without a care in her head, commits murder after murder, taking out (in usually gross fashion) those who have in some way disrespected her family. It is as if in the very act of killing someone she also forgets she has done so -- the perfect assassin.

Waters has his best fun with other icons of "taste" and loves adolescent gross-out humor: In one scene, a woman encourages her dog to lick her feet, then settles back to watch "Annie" on the VCR. Enter Mom, with a leg of lamb. Biff, pow . . . "To-morrow, To-morrow" ... whack, smash, punch ... "it's only a day a-way!"

Ultimately, of course, Beverly is caught, becomes Tabloidized -- here the "satire" becomes a bit heavy-handed -- is tried and serves as her own defense lawyer. Hmmmm. I liked it better when she killed people. Anyway, the humor is sufficiently broad to keep most of the audience that hasn't yet left in stitches, particularly as witty Beverly comes up with a defense mode that might be called the old flying knees gambit. Waters is just thinking wacky with a capital W: What's the least likely thing she'd do? Then he has her do it: The movie's like a master's thesis in non sequiturs.

Best of all is Turner in a performance that may save a career. It's not that she got small, it's that the movies got smaller. And of late she's always looked like she was capable of eating her colleagues in her huge, Tallulah-like way. But in "Serial Mom" La Turner has found the part of a lifetime. Men will look upon her for a thousand years and say, "This was her weirdest hour."

"Serial Mom"

Starring Kathleen Turner and Sam Waterston

Directed by John Waters


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