1998, R, 87 min. Directed by John Waters. Starring Edward Furlong, Christina Ricci, Bess Armstrong, Mark Joy, Mary Kay Place, Martha Plimpton, Brendan Sexton Iii, Mink Stole, Lili Taylor, Patricia Hearst, Jean Schertler, Lauren Hulsey.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 25, 1998

Pecker, John Waters' satire of the New York art world and off-key love song to his native Baltimore, is as savagely deadpan as his previous work, yet one guesses that it's somehow more personal and autobiographical than has been customary. The story, about an 18-year-old amateur photographer in Baltimore named Pecker (whose nickname derives from his childhood eating habits), whose sometimes grainy and out-of-focus pictures of his neighborhood friends and family accidentally catapult him to the top levels of the art-world scene, could be a stand-in for the career of John Waters. Early in the movie when Pecker (Furlong) is advised that, “If only you could concentrate on pretty scenery instead of our boring lives, you might really make a career of this thing,” you suspect this may be a comment the director of such trash classics as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Serial Mom has heard before. The movie, in essence, presents a parable about the shallow pretensions of the “legitimate” art denizens and the way in which the quest for fame and celebrity destroys the very things that make an artist's work pure and authentic in the first place. As is typical in a Waters film, the landscape is dotted with a bevy of colorful and kooky characters. They provide Pecker with sustenance and subject matter, though the New York journalists describe the young art star as coming from a “culturally challenged” background. Hailed as a “teenage Weegee” or “a humane Diane Arbus,” it doesn't take long for Pecker and his Baltimore entourage to learn that fame ain't all that it's cracked up to be. Though they all have too little to do, some of the characters in Pecker are great: Sexton as Pecker's thieving best friend whose shoplifting style is crimped by the new celebrity; Plimpton as Pecker's gay-friendly sister whose job as the emcee at the Fudge Palace comes into jeopardy; Place as Pecker's mom, a thrift-shop queen who thinks that poverty is no excuse for stylelessness, and Schertler as Pecker's grandmother Memama, who carts around a statue of the Virgin Mary as a ventriloquist's dummy. The talents of other actors seem wasted: Ricci, for example, as Pecker's muse and girlfriend, a rule-slinging owner of a local Laundromat; and Taylor, as Pecker's discoverer and dealer. As a whole, Pecker is enjoyable but also feels scattered and transitory. Perhaps this is especially noticeable in this film because Waters seems to have abandoned some of his shock-the-bourgeoisie strategy and is going after sincere themes and artistic concerns. Pecker represents a new plateau in Waters' career, although it appears as though he hasn't yet fully adjusted to the terrain. Still, any time a new John Waters movie opens up is cause for celebration. Not only has he taught us much about alternative aesthetics, he is one of the most resilient and persistent practitioners of independent and regionally based filmmaking. Pecker earns three stars but five pink flamingos.

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Pecker, John Waters, Edward Furlong, Christina Ricci, Bess Armstrong, Mark Joy, Mary Kay Place, Martha Plimpton, Brendan Sexton Iii, Mink Stole, Lili Taylor, Patricia Hearst, Jean Schertler, Lauren Hulsey

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