Friday September 25, 1998

     "Pecker" is a cautionary tale as only John Waters can caution. Think of writer-director Waters as the Frank Capra of an alternate universe and this film as his genially twisted version of "It's a Wonderful Life," and you'll begin to understand.
     Having Capra and Waters in the same paragraph would have been unthinkable 25 years ago, when the Baltimore-based filmmaker scalded sensibilities with his outrageous "Pink Flamingos."
     But though Waters' director credit appears over a shot of rats having sex, time has softened him a bit (as well as coarsening a lot else), so this latest combination of good humor and bad taste seems downright innocent, even sentimental at times.
     Ostensibly named after a lifelong habit of pecking at his food, 18-year-old Pecker (Edward Furlong) is a happy-go-lucky guy who believes "everyone always looks good" through the lens of his thrift-shop camera.
     Unfailingly cheerful and upbeat, Pecker will photograph anything, even the cheeseburgers at the Sub Pit snack shop he works at. Always on the lookout for "Pecker moments," he uses his friends and family as subjects and serves as our guide to Waters' version of blue-collar Baltimore, a wacked-out wonderland where everyone lives in a state of tongue-in-cheek innocence.
     Pecker's best pal, Matt (Brendan Sexton III), is the boy king of Baltimore's shoplifters, always ready to help out when more film needs to be stolen. Pecker's girlfriend, Shelley (Christina Ricci), is the zealous manager of the Spin 'n' Grin Laundromat, a woman who can never relax because "people with dirty laundry can be animals."
     Pecker's family is more of the same. His mom, Joyce (Mary Kay Place), runs a thrift shop where street people who worry about not having any fall colors in their wardrobe can shop in comfort, while dad Jimmy (Mark Joy) runs a bar called the Claw Machine. His main competition is a new place called the Pelt Room, where surly lesbians take it all off, leading to such tongue-twisting lines of dialogue as "No free peeking in the Pelt Room, Pecker." Really.
     Pecker's older sister, Tina (Martha Plimpton), is delighted to be working in a male go-go club called the Fudge Palace, while younger sister Little Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey) has a full-blown sugar addiction. As for grandmother Memama (Jean Schertler), she divides her time between selling pitbeef sandwiches (apparently a Baltimore delicacy) and believing that her statue of the Virgin Mary is a talking miracle that says "full of grace, full of grace" at slight provocation.
     Sure, these people are a little eccentric, but, gosh darn it, everyone is happy until the evil specter of the Manhattan art world comes to town in the person of Rorey Wheeler (Lili Taylor), Manhattan gallery owner extraordinaire.
     Quicker than a New York minute, Rorey has eyeballed Pecker's work, set up a show and bound him over hand and foot to the celebrity machine. Suddenly he's on the cover of Artforum, being called "a teenage Weegee" by the New York Times and featured in a show at the Whitney called, yes, "A Peek at Pecker."
     Just as George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life" didn't appreciate his ordinary life until it was all but gone, so Pecker and his gang suddenly find that celebrity, being "just like the Jackson family," can be a pastel nightmare for all concerned. But you already knew that, didn't you.
     "Pecker" spices its amusing pokes at the New York art world with appearances by real-life photographers Greg Gorman and Cindy Sherman, and the film's theme that "what they call art in New York looks like just plain misery to me" goes down as easy as anything Waters has ever done.
     "Pecker's" tone, as always with this director, is wall-to-wall ironic, and the film does have its raunchier moments, like a giant close-up of one of the pelts that made the Pelt Room famous. Mostly, however, the proceedings are surprisingly sweet and cheerful. The John Waters who told Vanity Fair that his greatest achievement was "making trash 1% more respectable" shows just how it's done here.

Pecker, 1998. R, for sexuality, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use. Released by Fine Line Features. Director John Waters. Producers John Fiedler, Mark Tarlov. Executive producers Mark Ordesky, Joe Revitte, Jonathan Weisgal, Joe Caracciolo Jr. Screenplay John Waters. Cinematographer Robert Stevens. Editor Janice Hampton. Costumes Van Smith. Music Stewart Copeland. Production design Vincent Peranio. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. Edward Furlong as Pecker. Christina Ricci as Shelley. Martha Plimpton as Tina. Brendan Sexton III as Matt. Lauren Hulsey as Little Chrissy. Mary Kay Place as Joyce. Lili Taylor as Rorey Wheeler.

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