The title character of "Pecker," John Waters' 13th film, is a teen-age sandwich-maker in Hampden who is nicknamed Pecker because as a child he pecked at his food. But just as the film's title flashes on screen, Waters assures us that his dirty mind is still working, when he flashes a shot of Baltimore's Washington monument, photographed at an angle that renders the father of our country an unwitting spokesman for Viagra.
Welcome to the world of John Waters, who at 52 remains in giggly thrall to the naughty appeal of sex, vice and all-around rude behavior. But as much as his comic sensibility seems ambered in arrested adolescence, Waters is also eager to reconcile the darker angels of our natures with an unshakable humanist vision.
These two impulses have been at odds in Waters' work in the past, one usually taking precedence over the other. But in "Pecker" they twine together with playful audaciousness, resulting in a wispy but satisfying comedy that will please admirers of Waters both at his nastiest and nicest.
Edward Furlong plays Pecker, who carries a camera with him everywhere and documents everyone and everything in his life. A girl shaving her legs on a city bus, rats copulating in a Hampden alley, cheeseburgers sizzling on a grill -- they're all fair game for Pecker, who sees the world with Candide-like gentleness and generosity of spirit.
But it's in the area of portraiture that Pecker's gifts really come to the fore, thanks to his family. His mother (Mary Kay Place) runs a thrift shop where she decks out her homeless friends in high flea-market style; his dad (Mark Joy) runs the Claw Machine, a bar whose business is being clobbered by a nearby lesbian strip joint called the Pelt Room. Pecker's grandmother Memama (Jean Schertler) runs a pit beef stand outside the family Hampden home and chats often with her talking statue of the Virgin Mary. Pecker's older sister (Martha Plimpton) works at a gay bar; his little sister (Lauren Hulsey) is a sugar addict.
Then there are Pecker's friends, Matt (Brendan Sexton III), the best shoplifter in Baltimore, and Shelley (Christina Ricci), a workaholic owner of a laundromat. "I don't have all day for stupid art," she growls when Pecker snaps her picture.
When a New York gallery owner (Lili Taylor) discovers Pecker's work and engineers his rise as an art star, just what is stupid and what is art will come into serious -- and seriously funny -- question. Waters has great fun at the expense of his Hampden weirdos and provincials, but when he turns his gimlet gaze to Manhattan, watch out.
Waters has gone back to the well of his "Pink Flamingos" days for some of the most jarring imagery in "Pecker," which features a brief but unforgettable shot of one of the Pelt Room's star employees in full labial detail. Ever the diplomat between the straight world and its kinkier cousins, Waters takes care to introduce filmgoers to some of the more obscure terms within the sexual lexicon, including "teabagging," "trade" and "Dutch ovens."
Waters has also returned to one of his most enduring -- and endearing -- themes, that of the intact, healthy family. (Even the family in "Pink Flamingos" stuck together with real affection in their quest to become the Filthiest People Alive.) Pecker's home life is a model of functionality, even when Pecker's fame provokes a visit from a Protective Services inspector, who puts the little candy-addict on Ritalin.
What's more, the motley members of Pecker's circle love their lives. After a trip to New York for Pecker's opening night, Shelley jumps off the bus and kisses the ground, proud to be a Baltimore girl; when the siren call of the Whitney Museum wafts down I-95, she speaks for his entire community when she warns him, "do nTC not turn into an a------."
There are some awkward moments in "Pecker," some scenes (like a shoplifting foray with Pecker and Matt) that don't quite come off. But the enterprise is kept buoyantly alive by a distinctly Waters-esque esprit de corps and a champion creative team. As always, production designer Vincent Peranio has captured the essence of Baltimore -- in this case the blue-collar neighborhood of Hampden -- even while exaggerating the city with a wildly colorful, larger-then-life look.
Stewart Copeland's jazzy score smoothes out some of the movie's rougher edges, and Waters has unearthed some amazing vintage records to accompany Pecker's unique world-view (his theme song is a catchy, hiccupy version of "Happy-Go-Lucky Me" sung by Paul Evans).
But most crucial to the success of "Pecker" is the cast, all of whom deliver deeply honest performances, with nary a wink or a nudge among them. They are all so good that to single any out seems unfair, but surely Furlong deserves special mention for carrying the story with such beatific grace. Plimpton, Joy and Schertler are funny without being wacky and portray their characters with four-square integrity. And here's to Lauren Hulsey, who portrays a complicated child without a trace of vanity and knows how to snort a pea with deep sincerity and gusto.
When Shelley delivers her warning to Pecker, her meaning -- and Waters' -- is clear. New York is for squares and dilettantes. Baltimore is where it's at.
This dictum comes true in a delightful bit of table-turning at the end of "Pecker," an orgy of Waters' inclusive vision that renders everyone in his sight as equally absurd and lovable.
If it's a bit contrived, as are many of the set pieces preceding it, the scene's integrationist point and playful spirit is contagious. More than any of his movies, "Pecker" synthesizes the contradictory forces of Waters' nature -- with charm, style and a terrifically game cast of players.
Rarely do sweetness and subversion co-exist so cheerfully on the screen.