"Sordid Lives" can most generously be called an overwritten soap opera with tangled themes and gut-busting jokes. Less generously, it can be dubbed "The Jerry Springer Show, but with Heart."
Either way, "Sordid Lives" is a train wreck you can't help but watch.
The film is playwright Del Shores' adaptation of his play "Daddy's Dyin'...Who's Got the Will?" which was launched in L.A.'s Theater/Theater. The semi-autobiographical ensemble piece revolves around the shocking death of a family matriarch, who fatally stumbled over her lover's (Beau Bridges) wooden legs after an adulterous late-night tryst.
Olivia Newton-John stars as Bitsy Mae Harling, a butch songstress who provides the musical chapter headings for each of the acts, after which the bickering begins. But the measuredly tense, underrated Beth Grant ("Donnie Darko") holds the picture together as Sissy, sister of the deceased and referee between warring children Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia) and LaVonda (Ann Walker), the latter of whom wants "mama" buried in her favorite mink stole, the one with the head still on it.
Grant plays a gossip with a heart of gold who tries to maintain the peace, even though she's just stopped smoking. Anyone familiar with small-town life can't help but recognize Sissy, who makes fun of the obese clerk at the grocery store in the same breath she uses to call her "my best friend." And try not to laugh every time she snaps her wrist with a rubber band, the negative reinforcement to battle her nicotine cravings.
The elegantly trashy Delta Burke turns in her best Tammy Faye Bakker impression as jilted wife Noleta, who remains friends with the sisters despite her cheating husband's involvement in their mother's scandalous death. Burke is typecast but funny - right up until Shores forces her into a clunky "Thelma and Louise" rampage with LaVonda. A dueling set of psychiatry sessions are woven throughout the piece - the first from Latrelle's gay son, Ty (Kirk Geiger), and the second from "Brother Boy," the family's Tammy Wynette-obsessed transvestite brother, institutionalized by the deceased to be cured of his homosexuality.
"Sordid Lives" falls into preachy territory near the end, as Ty struggles over revealing his homosexuality to his mother. While pondering his dilemma, he's confronted with same-sex couples holding hands and strolling with toddlers - which leads him to go home for his grandmother's funeral and reveal his secret. Ty, transparently, is the mouthpiece for the director's own struggle, and being too close to the material here lead Shores to hammer the point home.
In other areas, he's yet to find his cinematic rhythm, most notably in the second act, when the ladies seek revenge by humiliating their male tormentors. Still, the hits outnumber the misses, even if Shores merely points the camera at the action and lets his actors consume themselves in over-the-top Texan accents.
2 1/2 stars
Written and directed by Del Shores; photographed Max CiVon; edited by Ed Marx; production designed by Steve Cubine; produced by Sharyn Lane, Victoria Alonso and Max CiVon. A Regent Entertainment release; opens Friday, April 5. Running time: 1:51. MPAA rating: R (language, nudity and sex-related material).
G.W. Nethercott - Beau Bridges
Latrelle - Bonnie Bedelia
Sissy - Beth Grant
LaVonda - Ann Walker
Bitsy Mae Harling - Olivia Newton-John Ty - Kirk Geiger
Robert K. Elder is a Chicago Tribune Staff Writer.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times