Movie review: 'Die Mommie Die!'

1-1/2 stars (out of 4)

With a Tony nomination in 2001 for his story of a disaffected Upper West Side doctor's spouse, "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," veteran playwright Charles Busch made the leap from cult hit-maker to mainstream success. But it was his earlier off-Broadway smash about a 2,000-year rivalry between two vampiresses, "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," that best personified Busch's modus operandi: campy diva worship, often performed by Busch himself - in drag.

Apparently, Busch has had enough of the mainstream lane and has gone back underground to don glamorous duds for his second film project, "Die Mommie Die!"

It's a screen adaptation of Busch's stage play of the same name, which never really went anywhere after its 1999 Los Angeles debut - and doesn't go anywhere here.

Busch plays Angela Arden, a celebrity songbird whose music, by 1967, has gone out of fashion, and whose voice has given out with it. Still beloved by her senior-citizen fans, Angela dreams of getting her career back on track with just one more gig in the Catskills.

In her way is movie-producer husband Sol Sussman (Philip Baker Hall), who traps Angela in a loveless marriage and in their flamboyant Los Angeles mansion after learning of her affair with washed-up TV star Tony Parker (Jason Priestly). Also against her is daughter Edith (Natasha Lyonne), a daddy's girl ripe for her own man, awkwardly sexy in that my-clothes-are-too-small-for-my-blossoming-body way.

The story moves through a series of deceptions, as the characters plot against one another in a rotating cycle of manufactured intrigue and intentional melodrama.

A pastiche of Old Hollywood women's flicks and an ode to Greek mythology (without giving too much away, Busch was inspired by the murder of Agamemnon by his adulterous wife Clytemnestra in "The Oresteia"), "Die Mommie Die!" works in the same manner as Rob Zombie's heavily slasher-inspired "House of 1000 Corpses": If you can identify all the old flicks the movie borrows from, you win. But if you can't, or if you simply don't enjoy the game, you lose.

Busch is fine, not great, as Angela. With the exception of Baker Hall's larger-than-life presence and the quiet power of Frances Conroy, who plays Bootsie the omnipotent maid, the characters are too obvious in their playacting, far too stylized to be sincere, but without enough camp to make the style work. Busch muffles his drag performance, suffocating the humor, and the cleverness of the plot is given too much responsibility, as if the filmmakers were actually expecting this movie to be appreciated as a thriller.

I kept hoping for something ridiculously over the top to grab my waning attention, but the entire film stayed in this staid, safe world, as if the filmmakers thought having a drag queen as leading lady was pizzazz enough.Maybe it's not so smart for a movie to intentionally remind us of the golden age of film. It only hastens the conclusion that this one simply cannot stand on its own.

"Die Mommie Die"
Directed by Mark Rucker; written by Charles Busch; photographed by Kelly Evans; edited by Philip Harrison; production designed by Joseph B. Tintfass; produced by Dante Di Loreto, Anthony Edwards, Bill Kenwright. A Sundance Film Series release; opens Friday, Oct. 31. Running time: 1:30. MPAA rating: R (strong sexual content, language and a drug scene).
Angela Arden - Charles Busch
Sol Sussman - Philip Baker Hall
Edith Sussman - Natasha Lyonne
Lance Sussman - Stark Sands
Tony Parker - Jason Priestley
Bootsie Carp - Frances Conroy

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