Recycled trash

Waters hits reliably below the belt in Cecil B. Demented

?Opens Aug. 18

The older John Waters gets, it seems, the more his juvenile obsessions come home to roost: bodily functions, pretty teenage protagonists, the golden days of drive-ins, greasers and rude sexual double entendre. In his latest, Cecil B. DeMented, Waters searches for that elusive ambiance: the vintage teen exploitation pics of his own youth, youth gone wild and hopped-up sexed-up JD trash pictures that steamed countless Pontiac windows, crossed with the tongue-in-cheek meta-exploitation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Cecil B. DeMented is a root in familiar clover. Often subversively funny, but just as often an out-of-control mess, the film does, in some ways, resemble those anything-goes C-pictures of yesteryear.

The premise of Cecil reads like an Independent Film Channel promo, as a group of disenfranchised movie-house ushers — the poor saps who merely sniff the glamour tailwind of Hollywood's limo fumes — stage a violent coup. Tinseltown royalty Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) — an überbitch who oozes sweetness to the press and tortures her personal assistant (Ricki Lake) for fun — sweeps into town for the Baltimore premiere of her Hollywood blockbuster Forced Entry, as the kids pull off the "Big Snatch" and kidnap the starlet. The ushers whisk Honey away to their clubhouse, a Phantom of the Paradise rock-opera explosion of fake fur and glittery disarray housed in an old movie house where they gush about the glory days of Fassbinder, Preminger and Peckinpah.

Led by alternative cinema obsessive Cecil B. DeMented (Stephen Dorff) wearing a strait-jacket and a madman's expression, the Sprocket Holes are a band of underground cinema upstarts, including teen porn star Cherish (Alicia Witt) an incest survivor who claims her entire family, grandma included, raped her under the Christmas tree; drug addict Lyle (Adrian Grenier) who huffs, injects and pops every chemical under the sun and, like each Sprocket branded by their auteur guru, has "Herschell Gordon Lewis" tattooed on his arm. Back at the clubhouse, Cecil describes his nefarious plan: to force Honey to make an underground film that will fly in the face of Hollywood fakery. A political tract filmed on location around Baltimore, Raving Beauty is guerilla insurgency at the multiplex. The Sprockets storm into screenings of Patch Adams: The Director's Cut and the set of Gump, Again to unleash mayhem and shriek their "burn, Hollywood, burn" mantra.

On the Gump, Again backlot, the Sprockets disrupt filming, thus setting off the clock-watching, donut-eating Teamsters. Later, the Sprockets go head-to-head with a vicious family-values audience who tosses candy at the Sprockets and taunts the underground filmmakers: "You ain't gonna get distribution." Cecil is especially clunky when it comes to action sequences, as the Sprockets butt heads with Baltimore's film firmament: movie audience drips, pompous directors and Maryland Film Commission baseball cap-wearing industry nimrods. Halfway into the film, Waters' hysterically loosey-goosey way with action takes over and the entire film becomes a Herbie The Love Bug melee. The best exchange in all this goofy fracas, and proof that Waters still has some comic tricks up his sleeve, is the scene where the Sprockets hide out from the irate Teamsters in a porno theater showing Cherish's complete anal porn repertoire. But the burly Teamsters take one look at the Night of the Living Dead lust-drunk chronic masturbators lumbering toward them and are too grossed out to fight.

With shades of Patty Hearst (who plays a Squaresville Mom in the picture) and the Symbionese Liberation Army bankrobbers, Hollywood heiress Honey soon becomes infatuated with her captors. A Hollywood creampuff, Honey turns Commander Salamander punk glamourzon and her new blond Egyptian cut and make-up recalls Griffith's Something Wild glory days. With her siliconed lips, inflated breasts and still-squeaky-after-all-these-years purr, Griffith has become her own movie star caricature. The anti-Hollywood rebellion at the center of Waters' film seems personal, too. For once this poor nipped and tucked Hollywood Frankenstein lets her hair down and has some self-effacing fun with her own bimbo image.

As always, Waters' jokes have the clunky, irreverent feel of Jujubes hurled at a movie screen. Waters' gay sensibility has always been filtered through a distinctly lowbrow, drive-in wit, and in Cecil this union of two subcultures, retro and homo, is on full display. Cecil is a movie about style and anti-style, which wallows in bad taste, even as it rolls its eyes at Hollywood's middlebrow "good" taste. But like many retro-inspired films, Cecil B. DeMented's premise is greater than its catalog of jokes and gimmicks, and once the initial absurdity of Cecil and his Sprockets wears off, there's not much to hold the film together. Cecil makes you applaud rude boy Waters' often hilarious send-ups of the imbecility of Hollywood even as you long for a tighter story and faster joke feed.