John Waters earned his cult status by early films in which he challenged both American middle-class values and good taste. In his later years, with former anti-establishment counter-culture becoming part of new establishment, Waters' subversion began to miss its target. Serial Mom, his 1994 black comedy might very well present the reasons why.
In this film Kathleen Turner plays Beverly Suthpin, wife of well-to-do Baltimore dentist Eugene Suthpin (played by Sam Waterston) and mother of two teenagers - Misty (played by Ricki Lake) and Chip (played by Matthew Lillard). Her entire revolves around the family which is embodiment of each and every American middle-class ideal. The only problem for Beverly are people around who don't share her idealistic standards of domestic bliss and threaten Suthpin family idyll by occasional display of annoying habits (not wearing seatbelts, not rewinding borrowed tapes etc.). Beverly begins to punish those transgressions with brutal murders. Body count increases and the authorities, as well as Suthpin family members, are unaware that the serial killer is actually the perfect middle-class mother.
Perfectly functional WASP heterosexual middle-class families and the lifestyle displayed in 1950s and 1960s have been targeted by satire-minded and subversive film makers for decades before Waters' Serial Mom. In Clinton's 1990s alternatives to that lifestyle became part of the norm, so Waters in this film gave impression of beating the dead horse. It seems that Waters himself was aware that his film was based on a single joke (nice suburban mother turned into serial killer), so in the latter part of the film Serial Mom begins to change direction and instead of middle-class values new target is the ruthlessness of modern media and their obsession with vilest forms of social pathology. Unfortunately for Waters, that territory too has also been explored by other film makers and Waters fails to deliver anything fresh. Another problem for Waters is lack of humour – the killings, despite Waters lame attempts of injecting some black humour, are more grotesque than funny and they soon become too repetitive. Thankfully, Kathleen Turner seems quite comfortable in the role and displays a lot of comic abilities, but her efforts fail to make Serial Mom into anything more than merely watchable.
RATING: 3/10 (+)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on September 15th 2003)
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