directed by John Waters
(Fine Line Features, 1998)

Pecker is a young photographer who lives in Baltimore, Md., with his mother, the owner of a second-hand store; his father, who runs a neighborhood bar; his big sister, a bartender at a gay go-go joint; his little sister, a sugar addict; and his grandmother, Memama, who operates a pit beef stand in front of the house but devotes most of her time and energy to convincing people that her statue of the Virgin Mary speaks.

Together, they're a typical lower middle-class family, at least by John Waters' standards, and no other filmmaker of the past two decades has dissected the middle class in more ways than the unstoppable Waters.

But Pecker, Waters' latest release, has something many of his earlier films lacked: a hold on reality.

Gone are the massive grotesques of Polyester and Cry Baby. Waters' characters are still caricatures, and he plays them that way, but for all its outlandishness, Pecker exudes a quiet undercurrent of ironic wisdom that makes the film almost believable.

The story is simple enough: Pecker (Edward Furlong) -- so named because he pecked at his food as a child -- works in a sandwich shop, but what he really loves is taking pictures. And his family, friends and neighbors love having their pictures taken by him -- until he accidentally gets discovered by the New York art world.

Suddenly, his fortunes both take off and crash dive. His photos are worth hundreds of dollars; even the Whitney wants him. But no one wants to pose for him. They feel exposed, used, violated.

Even his girlfriend, Shelly (Christina Ricci) -- nicknamed "The Stain Queen" because she runs her laundromat with an iron hand -- breaks up with Pecker when she finds him in the arms of art agent Rorey Wheeler (Lili Taylor).

But as in all Waters' films, the plot is just a way of getting at the real subject matter. Like Serial Mom and Hair Spray before it, Pecker is a simultaneous celebration and send-up of middle-class tastes, or lack thereof.

It's driven by a culturally challenged family surrounded by paneled dining rooms and clear plastic table cloths. Its characters, without exception, are obsessed with something -- art, sex, stains, sugar, stardom. Even Memama turns her back on customers when people ask to see her statue of the Virgin Mary.

"Sometimes there's things more important than pit beef," she opines as she leads a pair of Mary worshipers to her room.

It's a line worthy of Waters. And it's hardly alone here.

Granted, Pecker is not for all tastes. There are lots of exposed body parts -- though never the ones you'd expect -- and there's no shortage of gay humor. The characters are fun and funny, but never for a second deep. And the resolution is as sentimental as it is silly.

Still, in his most mainstream work to date, Waters shows that he can make films the way other people do -- almost. And it's that almost that makes all the difference.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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