Mention Serial Mom to a suitably knowledgeable crowd, and you’ll hear a lot of, “Oh yeah, that was his [Waters’s] last…” and then some trailing off. His last great film? His last successful film? Depending upon whom you ask, both are true, or neither. Whatever your thoughts on it, although it’s part of his post-Hairspray mainstream canon, it’s pure John Waters, even if it does sacrifice a great deal of his notable filth (and maybe picks up some cohesion along the way).
Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is the perfect wife and mother in a squeaky-clean Cleaver-esque family, as noted in the text itself. Her dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston), son Chip (Matthew Lillard), and daughter Misty (Rikki Lake) all dote on her and are doted upon in turn. Everything is a picture of idealized domesticity, except that Beverly is severely mentally ill and holds intense grudges against those she perceives as having slighted her.
She acts out relatively harmlessly at first, making obscene phone calls to her neighbor Dottie Hinkle (Mink Stole, acting against type), but quickly escalating to murder when Chip’s teacher claims at a parent-teacher meeting that he thinks the boy’s interest in horror film is affecting his academic work. Once she crosses that line, she falls down the slippery slope at a rapid pace, snowballing into murdering of Misty’s crush Carl (Lonnie Horsey) for rejecting Misty and bringing another girl (our old friend Traci Lords) to a local swap meet, as well as a various others who are impolite or rude. This leads up to a trial of great spectacle, in which Beverly represents herself and discredits various witnesses and earns the sympathy of the jury, including Patty Hearst (credited as Juror #8), although the films ends on an ambiguous note about the ultimate fate of Beverly (and her family).
As always with Waters, this film is hilarious, with touches of absolute comic genius. Undersung comedian Justin Whalin has a minor role (and a major scene) in the film, and Patricia Dunnock is consistently fantastic as Chip’s (girl?)friend Birdie. There’s a lot to recommend here, but I hesitate to go into more detail for fear of ruining the fun for those who have yet to experience the comic genius. If I had one note to give, it’s that I agree with Roger Ebert’s review of the film; Turner is phenomenal in this film (that “pussywillow” scene alone manages to be both pure art and pure comedy), but she does play Beverly with such an earnest sincerity that, at times, the sympathy for such an obviously unwell woman supersedes humor, but not always.
After all, isn’t Serial Mom the more palatable version of Female Trouble? Or, more accurately, doesn’t (Female Trouble + Polyester) – Desperate Living = Serial Mom? I’m pretty sure my math is right here. Like Dawn Davenport before her, Beverly Sutphin goes on a killing spree and ultimately stands trial for her crimes. But whereas Dawn got the chair, Beverly, lovable insane Beverly, gets away with her crimes (maybe). Dawn gives a pre-execution monologue like she’s getting an Oscar; Beverly’s story is transformed into a TV miniseries and victims of her crimes are willing to sign away their story rights. Both films are chasing a thesis about the celebrity of crime, but Serial Mom does it through the eye of someone who’s seen twenty years of growing media attention and the resultant dilution of public outrage into ironic (and perhaps unironic) antiheroism, not to mention someone who crossed the Rubicon into the mainstream (for better or worse). What I’m saying is this: you can get Kathleen Turner and America’s Darling (D.A.) Sam Waterston into a movie wherein a man gets stabbed in the back with a fire poker and his liver has to be removed from said implement comically, but not a film in which a chicken is crushed to death by fucking. John Waters couldn’t make Female Trouble or Pink Flamingos in 1994, and maybe that’s a good thing; it gave him the opportunity to tackle a similar concept in two different ways, and although the size of an audience isn’t the sole factor in determining success, it can’t be said that Serial Mom didn’t reach a larger audience. What (if anything) it lost along the way is worth the sacrifice to create a John Waters movie you can (almost) watch with your mom.