Serial Mom

Serial Mom

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

It's hard work being a good person. Raising well behaved children, keeping a clean house, making hubby happy, being kind to little birds and animals, and doing your bit for society and the environment. All the harder when, all around you, other people are failing to keep up their end of the social bargain. It's enough to make a woman lose her temper.

Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is a very respectable woman. You can tell by looking at her - at her perfectly coiffeured hair, her neat tweed suits, her charming smile. So when at first she begins to terrorise and kill unreasonable friends and neighbours, nobody suspects her. Gradually the clues pile up, too many to ignore. Her family develop uncomfortable suspicions and the police close in. "Should I get a lawyer?" she asks her son. "No," he says. "You should get an agent."

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Although Sutphin is billed as Baltimore's first serial killer, this is the film that saw John Waters move out of the back streets and into the suburbs, simultaneously carving his way into mainstream American cinema. Some called it selling out, but he left none of his acerbic wit behind. Many of his old friends are here, popping up in small roles - Mink Stole as a terrified, repressed neighbour; Traci Lords as the glamorous love rival of our heroine's darling daughter. Rikki Lake plays the daughter herself, an awkward teenager looking for romance, with her usual verve. But Turner in the central role delivers a tour de force. Gleefully lampooning her established image, she throws herself into the role, charming the audience every bit as much as her character charms the jury before which she eventually appears. Beverly is vicious, impulsive, petty and sociopathic, showing not a hint of remorse, yet we can't help rooting for her. She's just too much fun to lock away.

Entertaining though this is, it could easily give the impression of being a one trick pony. What marks the film out is the way it embellishes its central premise, particularly in the second half, where it plays with the conventions of courtroom drama; likewise the subversive way it explores wider themes. For all Beverly's flaws, she cares about the world she lives in. Many of her victims are openly contemptuous of others, and their anti-social actions do have a cumulative effect. Has Beverly failed at being the ideal middle class wife, or has she perfected it - is homicide a natural extension of that behaviour, something that, as the villagers of Hot Fuzz might describe it, is for the greater good? We're invited to sympathise intellectually as well as emotionally. But watch more closely and you'll find that tested, too. Is Beverly really at the mercy of her impulses? How much of her behaviour is actually about setting up escape routes for herself in advance? Serial Mom challenges pop psychology's portrait of the serial killer, eroding the comfort zone created when we pretend we understand.

There's also a sharp critique of the media here - as you'd expect from the man who gave us Hairspray and Pecker. Some of it is cheerfully blunt - the t-shirts on sale outside the courtroom, the cameo from Suzanne Somers as the star who hopes to play Beverly when they make the movie of her life - but there's also sly, darker stuff such as Beverly's trawling of serial killer book sections in an apparent search for how-to guides. She briskly dismisses any risk that her son's love of horror films will influence his behaviour, and the film strongly contends that such viewing does nothing to shield one against real horror; but the much more acceptable television chat shows in the background, focusing on women who love imprisoned killers, pose more difficult questions about society's relationship with violence and the ways it is culturally festishised. Echoing the shift in Waters' focus, it contends that there is no innate difference between these comfortable suburbanites and the slum dwellers of Pink Flamingos; it's just that we're quicker to overlook the little misdemeanours of the former.

With its flawless comic timing, its biting satire and its vivacious spirit, Serial Mom is a triumph. It's also a respectable film, making a social contribution. After watching it, you'll never again forget to recycle or wear your seatbelt.

Reviewed on: 01 Aug 2012
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Things get ugly when a nice, middle class, suburban housewife runs out of patience.
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Director: John Waters

Writer: John Waters

Starring: Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Scott Morgan, Walt MacPherson, Justin Whalin, Mink Stole, Mary Jo Catlett, Patricia Hearts, Suzanne Somers, Traci Lords

Year: 1994

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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