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Back in the early Seventies, when John Waters made his first splash with low-budget gross-outs such as Pink Flamingos and Multiple Maniacs, who would have guessed that someday he'd be making a Hollywood film as benevolent as Pecker? In retrospect, maybe we shouldn't be surprised. If any director has ever displayed a nearly unconditional fondness for even his most loathsome characters, it's Waters.
Pecker is a satire, but an incredibly good-natured one, which is not quite the contradiction in terms it might seem. And while Waters includes some of the "bad taste" that has long been his trademark, it doesn't seem quite as deliberately repulsive as it used to. It's not merely the director who has changed; it's the nation. In recent decades American culture has redefined what subject matter it will allow into the arena of public discourse. The Starr Report may be the coup de grace, but it's no revolution; it's merely the natural next (if tawdry) step in the process. Pecker's opening montage features a closeup of two mice humping, an image that might have proved shocking 25 years ago but doesn't quite match the clinical details of presidential mating habits -- close, but no cigar.
Even the apparent raciness of the title turns out to be no more than a tease. Pecker (Edward Furlong), the eighteen-year-old protagonist, is so called not because of anything having to do with his dick, but because of his meager appetite: His grandmother, Memama (Jean Schertler), always complained about him pecking at his food.
Fresh out of high school, Pecker still lives with his family, while working, none too enthusiastically, at a local diner. He's a perfectly normal, white-bread American kid, right down to the detail of not being too perfect: He helps his best friend Matt (Brendan Sexton III) shoplift, although Pecker never directly profits from it.
But Pecker has an artistic calling: He's a photographer, and he runs around Hampden, his Baltimore neighborhood, snapping as many pictures as he can, managing (seemingly without trying) to capture all the cultural nuances of his environment. But this is no chronicle of an arduous rise to the top. In fact Waters grants Pecker an easy success that is a parody of Hollywood conventions: On the very day that Pecker first hangs his photos on the diner's walls, art-world super agent Rorey (Lili Taylor) passes through the 'hood, sees the work, immediately signs him, and arranges a major New York City show.
The show is a huge success, but there are bad omens even before the evening ends. Pecker's girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci) is miserably uncomfortable outside of her usual habitat -- the Spin 'n' Grin, a laundromat that she manages with an iron fist. "I don't belong here," she moans at the opening. "These people don't even use laundromats. They go to dry cleaners." She's seen enough movies to know that success can change people. "Don't become an asshole, Pecker," she tells him. "I beg you: Do not become an asshole."
Strangely enough, Pecker does not become an asshole. He doesn't change, nor, in any inherent sense, do his family and friends. But the world changes around them: He tries to live the same life he always has, but his success redefines everything. Before, he was just a goofy kid taking snaps of whatever he came across; now he's an international art star. The fame he brings to Hampden threatens to ruin the world that he's documented. People suddenly become self-conscious when he takes off his lens cap. The gay strip joint where his big sister (Martha Plimpton) works is mobbed with curious tourists. ("I need to see some gay I.D.," the flustered club owner tells the crowd.) His little sister's sugar addiction brings threats from social services bureaucrats.
Still, Waters isn't interested here in social problems or grand moral dilemmas. Pecker's travails may be many, but they're also short-lived. He comes up with a plan that allows him to remain an artist without destroying the milieu that is the source of his art: Amazingly, his plan works.
Not surprisingly, Waters saves his sharpest digs for two always-ripe targets -- the New York art world and its pretentious denizens. "He's like a humane Diane Arbus!" one first-nighter coos about Pecker, while in another part of the room artist Cindy Sherman (playing herself) offers Pecker's little sister a Valium. But even these poseurs are given their due respect by the end. When someone proposes a toast "to Pecker -- and the end of irony," Waters himself is either being completely ironic or completely unironic: No in-between here.
What Pecker lacks in sharpness it makes up for in humor and in the richness of its gallery of eccentrics. Waters has always been akin to Preston Sturges in his fondness for wacky minor characters; like all Waters films, this one is replete with the sweetly naive and the mildly chemically disordered. It's a sign of the bigness of his heart that he seems to love and respect them all equally.
Written and directed by John Waters. Starring Edward Furlong, Christina Ricci, Martha Plimpton, Lili Taylor, and Brendan Sexton III. Opens Friday.
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