The titular Cecil (Stephen Dorff) is a rough-trade Baltimore filmmaker who wants to not only subvert but destroy the Hollywood empire. On his quest, he kidnaps bitchy, middle-aged movie star Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) and forces her to act in his own underground movie, essentially a series of filmed acts of sabotage, from spray-painting cineplexes to trashing the set of a Forrest Gump sequel. Eventually Honey gets into it, and by now you can see that it's Waters' winking nod to the 1970s Patricia Hearst kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Hearst has since become a good friend of Waters, and even appears in this film as a concerned parent.
And therein lies the central problem with Cecil B. DeMented: we now live in an age where everybody is more or less okay with making fun of themselves. Waters even claims this movie is really a satire of the John Waters of 30 years ago, when he was a Baltimore filmmaker whose films posed a legitimate threat to good taste. Jeez, who wants to see Waters satirize himself? I thought the target was supposed to be mainstream cinema!
I'd hoped there would be enough genuine bile and anger in this story – Hollywood pap is certainly an easy target – to elevate it to genuine agitprop. But Waters, now in his fifties, hasn't been "underground" for over two decades. I'd never accuse the guy of selling out, and he has at least acknowledged that today's true "underground" cinema is essentially porn, but here he had the opportunity to attack middle-of-the-road values and tastes, and he whiffed it. Despite the violence, profanity, and general amorality of his young heroes (DeMented's followers include an anal porn star, a man who ingests – on camera – every drug invented, and a dutiful Satan worshiper), Waters seems to keep telling us, "Just jokin', folks – I love showbiz!" Moreover, Dorff and Griffith are miscast and lack bite; it's like they don't really understand Waters' worldview.
In short, while Cecil B. DeMented is pretty rude and pretty funny, its own harmlessness renders its message impotent. After this and Fight Club, I'm getting anxious to see a film that genuinely dares to subvert mainstream culture. But how can that happen in these comfortable times, when the filmmakers themselves are comfortable? I guess we'll have to look to other countries for fringe films. Take Japan: two days before I saw DeMented, I caught a film called Fudoh, which featured children playing soccer with their teacher's severed head, 6-year-old assassins, and a woman shooting darts out of her vagina. Now that's entertainment.