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Sordid Lives

Not rated, 111 min. Directed by Del Shores. Starring Rosemary Alexander, Olivia Newton John, Kirk Geiger, Leslie Jordan, Ann Walker, Beth Grant, Delta Burke, Bonnie Bedelia, Beau Bridges.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 25, 2001

Playwright Del Shores' Daddy's Dyin', Who's Got the Will? made it to the screen in 1990 with Raggedy Man's director Jack Fisk at the helm; I didn't like it then, and I don't like it now, even though the title's a hair better. I can hear the legions of Shores' fans clamoring for my viscera already, though, so hey, I'll admit it: They're not one and the same film, not really. Still, this shrill, manic, cloyingly obstreperous production shares a literary bloodline with Daddy that can't be ignored. Both films focus on sprawling, Southern family gatherings where either the matriarch or patriarch is dead or dying; both films have Beau Bridges in ridiculous situations; and both films make great use of cornpone-cracker character names such as Lurlene, Bitsy, and “Daddy.” It's funny, sure, up to a point, but after a while Shores' Southern-fried gothic zaniness grows tiresome. Sordid Lives (which played at last year's Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival) is, of course, adapted by the director from his own play, and while it may have served a live audience well enough (and I can see the broad comic guffaws actually working onstage), the bizarre histrionics appear to have lost something in the translation. The story takes place in a tiny Texas town where Peggy Ingraham (Gloria Leroy), mater familias of a genuinely outré clan, has passed on after tripping over her married lover's wooden legs in a No-Tell-Motel outside of town. The aberrant nature of the demise in question has thrown the entire family into what can only be called (and only in a film like this) a “tizzy,” with daughter Latrelle (Bedelia) worrying about everything from the funeral arrangements to whether or not her son Ty (Geiger), a struggling actor in Los Angeles, will make it back home for the proceedings. Out in L.A., the closeted Ty muses to his therapist about coming out to mom, while his uncle Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Jordan) -- an institutionalized drag queen with a penchant for Tammy Wynette -- stolidly attempts to become “ungay” with the overzealous help from his own therapist (Alexander), who's equally desperate to prove she can “de-gay” him and thereby secure a prime slot on Oprah. But wait, there's more: Bridges is G.W., the man with the wooden legs, who's been so wrapped up in his kinky affair that he's failed to notice that his wife Noleta (Burke) is shotgun-toting mad. And on and on, ad nauseam. There's so much going on in Sordid Lives, at such a frantic pace, and at such a tremendous volume (no one with functional lungs can manage anything under a shout, it seems, though with all the chain-smoking going on it's a wonder they can manage even that), that the entire film feels like some awesome gay Southern Baptist carnival ride run amok. Shores lobs broadsides at everything within sight, and while a few of the oh-so-trenchant gags do indeed stick, the vast majority seem to squeal with all the shrieking panic of a house cat launched from some comic siege engine. Unruly, abrasive, and wild, Sordid Lives is a galloping riot of dysfunctional family humor. Too bad it's just not that funny.
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