The genius behind much of John Waters’ work resides in the casting. He is not only interested in the margins of pop culture, he’s fascinated with the intersections, as well. It was Waters who cast convicted felons like the infamous Patricia Hearst, hostage-turned-armed-robber and guerilla in the Symbionese Liberation Army and Liz Renay in his films, as well as former underage porn star Traci Lords. The fact that Hearst and Lords have each attained a certain amount of mainstream exposure may not be wholly attributed to Waters, but it does illuminate the piece of his manifesto devoted to confronting audiences with their own anxieties about sex, violence, and taboo.
The brilliance of Serial Mom’s casting grows brighter with each passing year. I am not referring to the presence of a convicted felon or underage porn star or otherwise stigmatized figure (though Patricia Hearst does make an appearance as a juror) but rather a respected actor well within the margins. I am referring to the casting of Sam Waterston as Eugene Sutphin, emasculated husband to Kathleen Turner’s homicidal wife.
At the time, it was merely clever. Sam Waterston, thespian of countless television and movie productions, was probably best known for his role as journalist Sydney Schanberg in 1984’s The Killing Fields, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. It would have been jarring for Waters fans to see such a serious actor in one of his films, and it would have been jarring for otherwise-suited viewers to see such a serious actor in a Waters’ film.
The same could be said of Kathleen Turner but to a lesser extent, since she had already done some rousing dark comedies like The War of the Roses. Thus, casting Waterston as the emasculated head of the household seemed to be a jab at the high-brow establishment that Waters had been waging war against with early films like Female Trouble and Pink Flamingoes.
Serial Mom was released in 1994. That same year, Waterston began what would become an iconic run as D.A. Jack McCoy on Law & Order. To watch Serial Mom now is to watch the man who for many American households is the law itself castrated and helpless. With a bit of ironic memory, then, Serial Mom takes aim at the erect mahogany pillar that is the criminal justice system and suggests that social bullies, embodied in the extreme by the title character, hold the keys to the kingdom.
But wait, there’s more. Serial Mom also seems oddly heraldic of the moment where audiences would so fetishize the spectacle of the murder trial that it would become permanently ingrained in pop culture. On the DVD extras, Waters is quick to point out that the O.J. Simpson trial would follow on the heels of Serial Mom’s release, a validating moment for Waters and his film.
The truth is, societies at large have always been captivated by a good courtroom showdown, but the advent of “Court TV” and countless Law & Order spin-offs have made them as intrinsic to middle class life as bottled water. So on the one hand, the sensationalized story that Serial Mom constructs appears naïve now. It wouldn’t be nearly as sensational in the current cultural context of desensitization, yet it no less traces the path to this point. Thus, a casting decision initially motivated by the size of the picture’s budget and Waters’ sense of humor now allows the film to speak to audiences in continuously evolving ways.
Such hindsight is very fortunate for Serial Mom because as satire, its targets are too broad to serve up any new insight on either the plasticity of suburbia or the value of infamy. Beverly Sutphin (Turner) is a hyperactive suburban housewife hell-bent on recycling, cooking the perfect meal, and taking care of her husband and their children Chip (a gangly Matthew Lillard) and Misty (Ricki Lake).
She is also the ultimate social bully, killing anyone she deems an unfit citizen. These include Chip’s schoolteacher, who gives him a bad grade, Misty’s high school crush Carl Pageant, who no-shows for a date, and a neighbor who refuses to rewind the videos she rents from the movie store where Chip works. They are run over with cars, skewered with fire pokers, and bludgeoned to death with legs of lamb, respectively.
These and other murders are fast, furious, and winkingly funny. For example, when Beverly sticks the fire poker into Carl, she inadvertently retrieves his liver. Refined woman that she is, she can barely bring herself to pull it off of the poker. The scene is also noteworthy for its nod to gore maestros and Grindhouse gurus of old like Herschel Gordon Lewis and William Castle. Longtime heroes of Waters, homage is paid elsewhere when Chip gleefully shows their bloody films to his friends.
The string of murders leaves the neighborhood in a frenzy as speculation rages over the identity of the killer. When the police finally match her prints to one of the crime scenes, she is arrested and whisked away to trial. Her family, alternately supportive and horrified, take a proactive stance on her publicity; Chip goes about hiring an agent for PR and Misty hooks up with a local reporter and gets to work right away on selling memorabilia for the trial.
As the trial itself gets underway, the layers of irony get out of control. The film may purposefully devolve into a circus, but the haphazard nature of the trial itself is in no way earned, especially since Waters goes through all the trouble of making the first two-thirds of his film so coherent. Unless the trial is what Waters is really after, in which case the rest of his film is fairly disposable, if indeed enjoyable.
There is plenty of evidence to support the hypothesis that the American Murder Trial is the most salient target of Waters’ satire. Consider the ways that Beverly beats the murder wrap: Representing herself at trial, he discredits one witness by getting her to admit on the stand that she doesn’t recycle. The entire courtroom shares a collective gasp. She exposes herself to another witnesses to get him to perjure himself on the stand, and she successfully furbishes doubt on the validity of a search detectives conducted on her trash to collect evidence. She informs the jury that she found a magazine entitled “Chicks with Dicks” in one of the detectives’ trash. Does that make him a bad cop? And finally Suzanne Somers, doing her research for the upcoming made-for-TV movie in which she will play Beverly Sutphin, appears as herself to distract the jurors during key testimony from an expert forensic witness.
Here Waters is tapping into what many more conservative households truly suspect the criminal justice system to be: a bunch of arbitrary “technicalities” working in conjunction with criminals rather than against them. It should be noted that John Waters rarely sides with conservative audiences, and it may not even be the case here. Waters could just as easily have been commenting on the average viewer’s consumption of violence as entertainment while yet allowing even the smallest incursion of vulgarity or “bad taste” to ruffle his feathers.
The jury’s willingness to excuse Beverly on the grounds that she appears to excel in her social duties as a housewife while her accusers don’t takes on extra weight in the heightened FCC culture that bemoaned Janet Jackson’s bare boob at the Super Bowl but propelled CSI to the top the ratings every year. Maybe Waters really was on to something …Still, the fact that John Waters might be siding with the conservatives on this one illuminates the strange ways in which this box office flameout still endures, in spite of itself.