Film Review of Shortbus
Directed By John Cameron Mitchell
Process Media (2006)
Currently playing at Sunshine Cinema and Clearview Chelsea
Showgirls director Paul Verhoeven once commented that he wanted to make a mainstream narrative film that showed a penis becoming erect, since it represents perhaps the greatest taboo for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Hollywood filmmaking. Seriously one-upping both Verhoeven and Kirby Dick’s anti- MPAA screed This Film is Not Yet Rated – John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus not only has more erect penises, general full-frontal nudity and unsimulated sex than any narrative film recent memory, it actually includes in its opening sequence a man trying to fellate himself. Shocking and yes, provocative, especially in our increasingly repressive environment, where an exposed nipple is still a relevant news story years later. But this scene is no mere stunt – what starts off as an amusing take on self-love soon dissolves into the loneliest image of any movie all year when the exceptionally limber ex-hustler, videotaping the act alone in his apartment, begins to quietly weep.
Combining a serious interest in the love lives of the disenfranchised with his musically fluid sense of structure and mischievous flair for provocation, Mitchell builds on the success of his debut, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, by fashioning a mini-Altman tapestry of people struggling to find happiness in their relationships. The relatively aimless narrative focuses on three couples who all come together at the titular Brooklyn sex haven, a more playful, low-key version of Warhol’s Factory with a similar level of welcomed debauchery.
Aforementioned ex-hustler James (Paul Dawson) and his sweet but dull boyfriend Jamie (PJ DeBoy), who’ve stopped sleeping together after many years together, visit “couple’s counselor” Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), whose husband Rob (Raphael Barker) has no idea she’s never had an orgasm. Brought to Shortbus by James and Jamie, Sofia befriends Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix and artist whose abuse of her main client, trust-fund prick Jesse (Adam Hardman), is starting to wear on her psyche. Connections are forged, with James and Jamie entering into a three-way relationship with model Ceth (Jay Brannan), while James grows increasingly more despondent. Shut off from the world, Severin starts to open up to Sofia, who even kisses Shortbus’ cross-dressing host (scene-stealing genius Justin Bond) in a vain search for sexual fulfillment.
Beyond the ample sex onscreen, there’s a real intimacy among the cast, perhaps due to Mitchell’s decision to workshop the film collectively à la Christopher Guest or Mike Leigh. Thus, despite a handful of awkward edits and strangely underdeveloped characters, the film captures a genuine tenderness that nicely complements its epic ode to tolerance (even a creepy peeping tom is embraced!). As in Hedwig, Mitchell cuts best to music and the film’s combination of real sex with the bitchiest wit since Bette Davis will surely give it a similar cult following.
In juxtaposing the pure joy of fucking with the heartbreak, miscommunication, and isolation of sexual relationships, Mitchell has made a sweetly mature and enjoyable American film about sex that deserves your hard-earned cash.
Shortbus is currently playing at Sunshine Cinema and Clearview Chelsea.