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Pecker

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 25 September 1998

  Written and Directedby John Waters.

Starring Edward Furlong, Christina Ricci,
Bess Armstrong, Mark Joy, Mary Kay Place,
Martha Plimpton, Brendan Sexton III,
Lili Taylor, and Mink Stole.

In the twelve features master of bad taste John Waters made before Pecker he has audaciously gone where no director has gone before. Pink Flamingos (1972) is still a cult classic, containing one of the most vilest scenes in cinema history. Slightly de-nauseating were follow-up satires Female Trouble, Desperate Living, and Polyester, even getting 50s movie star Tab Hunter into some more of his "mainstream" productions. His recent efforts Hairspray and Serial Mom were delightful, but gentle, additions to his comedy war chest. While the Baltimore native continues to make modest-budget character-driven comedies in his home town, he comes up empty with his 13th feature. Bad luck, I guess. John Waters’ Pecker (conjure up the image!) is a limp effort in search of a Viagra fix. Too bad the main character’s name isn’t Cigar.

Edward Furlong is Pecker, a teenaged short order cook at a local sub pit and amateur photographer in a decidedly blue collar ward of the city. He photographs friends, strangers, even the hamburger patties he’s flipping. The camera is a hand-me-down courtesy of his mother (Mary Kay Place), who caters to the secondhand crowd with a pre-owned thrift shop. Wacko grandma Memama (Jean Schertler), is a pit beef queen with a roadside shack outside the family wood-paneled residence, but she would much rather pray with her "talking" statue of Mary. Pecker’s siblings have their own quirks: older sister Tina (Martha Plimpton) hires go-go dancers at a local "working boys only" gay club, while six-year-old Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey) has over-active sugar fixation. Dad is a struggling bartender feeling the economic heat from a nude bar across the street.

The family, on the low end of the commercial totem pole, scraps along (although I kept asking myself how Pecker could afford to develop his own film and strike his own enlargements) until the shutterbug is discovered by Rorey Wheeler (Lulu Taylor) a dynamic New York art dealer and the boy’s celebrity status mushrooms overnight. Before you can say magazine cover, it’s a family feud of the unpretentious Baltimore cultural challenged inner citizens and the New York name-dropping intelligentsia. The media over-exposure turns the back-water family’s life upside-down. Their house is robbed, their nerves are frayed, and the welfare services -- in the guise of one Dr. Klompus (Bess Armstrong) -- clamp down on Chrissy’s sucrose sensitivity. All of Pecker’s subjects demand a cut of the action, while his main squeeze Shelley (Christina Ricci), a "stain goddess" at a local laundromat, leaves him as does his best friend Matt (Brendon Sexton III), once "the best thief in town," who gets caught shoplifting. It’s Job for everyone on a bad hair day.

This fairy tale does have a happy, and a terribly over-forgiving, ending. The New York art crowd head down to crab city for the grand opening of Pecker’s Place (his father’s bar hence rechristened). Rorey has since discovered a blind New Jersey photographer while Chrissy finds happiness snorting peas. In a big hurrah for Pecker, the crowd toasts to the "end of irony," while our hero contemplates his next move.

I do admire Waters for writing up a weird array of idiosyncratic personalities. You won’t find a menagerie like this in any other American filmmaker’s work. The problem is that Furlong is too weak an actor to carry the film, although Ricci has a good focus as she continues to strut her stuff in American independent cinema, following up bravura performances in Buffalo ’66 (in which she plays a another B-city ditsy to remarkable effect) and The Opposite of Sex. And the story’s too weak to carry the cast, the tale unable to support the broad, and often too brief, array of odd talent. It’s just not a grabber; merely a shrug off. Gross-out king Waters isn’t cutting edge anymore, either, with his bite nearly as sweet as Chrissy’s sweet tooth. Pecker peters out.


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