Ain't it a bitch, sortin' out our sordid lives?
Yes, it certainly is.
Facts of the Case
Nothing brings out the best and worst in a family like a wedding or a funeral. In this case, it's a funeral, and it brings out mostly the worst. In a small town in Texas, family matriarch Peggy Ingram passes away under embarrassing circumstances. To be more precise, she trips over her lover's wooden legs on her way to the motel bathroom. This is highly traumatic for almost everyone in town. Her sister Sissy (Beth Grant, The Rookie) finds the timing very inconvenient, as she has just quit smoking and is in the third day of withdrawal. Uptight, judgmental daughter Latrell (Bonnie Bedelia, Die Hard) is mortified at the manner of her mother's death, and must keep up appearances at all costs. Latrell's sister LaVonda, who is much more easygoing, is coping with her mother's death pretty well, but is worried about her friendship with Sissy's next door neighbor, Noleta Nethercott. Noleta (Delta Burke, Designing Women) is LaVonda's best friend, but it was her husband G.W. (Beau Bridges, The Fabulous Baker Boys) who was having the affair with Peggy when she died. It is bad enough that Noleta's husband was having an affair with LaVonda's mother; his causing her death might really put a strain on the relationship.
Take a moment to digest that, and then consider the rest of the story. Latrell's son Ty (Kirk Geiger, One Life to Live, Days of our Lives) is an actor in Los Angeles, in therapy because he's evidently the only one in his life who thinks his homosexuality is a secret. He has no intention of coming home for his grandmother's funeral because, let's face it, small-town Texas isn't the best place in the world to be gay. Just ask his uncle Earl, better known as "Brother Boy." Earl (Leslie Jordan, Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel) has spent the last 23 years in a mental institution because of his proclivity for dressing up as various legendary female country singers and lip-synching to their records. His therapist, the domineering Dr. Eve (Rosemary Alexander, The Trip), is frustrated with her lack of progress in "dehomosexualizing" Brother Boy; his apparent incurability is stymieing her pursuit of a book deal and the talk show circuit.
When all these bizarre forces collide at Peggy's funeral, the result is a sordid mess of a movie that doesn't know whether it is a raunchy comedy or a touching coming-out drama.
Sordid Lives reminds me a lot of King of the Hill, only live action and not funny. Someone once said that in order for comedy to work, the audience has to care about the characters at least a little bit. That certainly isn't the case here, where there are no real characters, only broad caricatures of every white-trash trailer-dwelling stereotype known to man. Writer/director Del Shores based Sordid Lives in large part on the people he knew growing up in Texas, including his own family, and his own very personal coming out experience. In his commentary track and other personal reflections on this DVD he speaks rather affectionately about the people he remembers, which is probably accounts for the weakness of his mockery. His characters seem like they would be right at home in a John Waters film, but their portrayals lack the sharpness and biting satire that Waters would bring. The result is a little like burning ants with a magnifying glass, but not enough to kill them.
Strangely enough, Shore's homosexual characters suffer just as many indignities at his hands as do the narrow-minded small town denizens. Brother Boy is a collection of every gay/drag queen stereotype ever written, and is played almost entirely for cheap laughs. I know his imprisonment in a mental institution is supposed to be seen as cruel and inhumane, but somehow he seems like he should be there, not for "dehomosexualization," of course, but just for being nuts. Ty is supposed to function as Del Shores's avatar and comes across as the least bizarre person in the film, but even he seems more type than character: a gay man, naturally an actor, seen through most of the movie in his therapist's office, deeply resentful and conflicted about the people he comes from back in Texas.
The visual quality on this release won't be winning any awards either. Sordid Lives was shot on high definition digital video. This format, when used properly, holds great promise for low-budget filmmakers and keeps the cost of a production down. On the other hand, it requires a great deal of care to get a properly rich, film-like picture. According to the commentary track, Sordid Lives was one of the first small productions to shoot exclusively on hi-def; the results are less than impressive. In many scenes the picture retains a flattened, video style image that lacks any sense of depth or perspective. It also yields an overly dark yet oddly washed out picture, as though the blacks were highly oversaturated and everything else was undersaturated. Shadowed areas have no definition at all, and dark colored areas, like Delta Burke's hair or the lapels of Dr. Eve's navy blue suit, blend into a seamless patch of inky darkness. There are also several scenes where flesh tones and other areas appear a bit orange, which is either a failing of the DV filming, the on-set lighting, the DVD transfer, or a combination of all three.
The audio, on the other hand, is actually not too bad. It's one of the nicest, cleanest Dolby 2.0 Stereo tracks I've heard in quite a while. It doesn't hold a candle to the more robust mixes on other releases, but it is fairly impressive for what it is.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sordid Lives might not be my cup of tea, but it does come with a nice selection of special features that helped to soften my opinion of it somewhat. There are a lot of short interview segments on this disc. While these are fairly standard talking head fare, it is nice to see the carious talents involved in the film get a chance to talk about their impressions of the project. The longest of these is a segment entitled "Stories by Del Shores and Sharyn Lane." In this 16-minute segment, Shores and producer Lane talk a lot about the deal making and necessary arrangements for getting the movie made. Also included are 23 shorter segments featuring Shores, Lane, and almost the entire cast. These are interesting, but are for the most part too short to have much substance. There are also ten deleted scenes with optional commentary by Shores and whatever member of the cast or crew is most central to a given scene. These are a useful addition. In both cases, the additional scenes and the interview footage, a "play all" option is sorely missed.
One of the great surprises of the film is Olivia Newton-John (Grease, Xanadu), who appears as Bitsy Mae, local ex-con and bar singer. Her role in the film is small but very effective, as she brings an emotional rawness to a number of old-time gospel hymns. Included in the special features are her full-length uncut performances of "Will the Circle be Unbroken?" and "Coming Home." These are a very nice touch and a good addition to the DVD.
Finally, we are treated to a commentary track by Shores and a revolving contingent of cast and crew. Various cast members join Shores to comment on the specific scenes involving their characters. This is great fun, and much more entertaining than the movie itself. One remarkable thing stands out about all the special features, and that is how much stock everyone concerned seems to set by their success in Palm Springs.
I do not wish to give the impression that everything about the film is a cartoonish farce. In particular, I was impressed by how Shores makes poignant comments on religion through the film. The son of a Southern Baptist preacher, he has deep and conflicting emotions about the gospel that proclaims love and acceptance, and its practice by people who often fail to live up to those ideals. This is probably the most nuanced, delicately expressed message of the film and it seems to be the one area where he doesn't go for the kneejerk answer or the easy lampoon.
I didn't much care for Sordid Lives. Shores has some good ideas, and some rich material to work with from his personal experiences, but he seems to be of two minds with this film. It is as if he wants to make a John Waters style slash and burn comedy, but deep down he's just too nice a guy to do that. On the other hand, he wants to present important issues about what it's like to be a gay man from Texas, but the poignant personal elements get lost in a sandstorm of clichés, yokel stereotypes, and camp comedy/melodrama. If anything, Shores is probably guilty of trying to explore too many different facets of his life within the confines of one movie.
Guilty! Del Shores seems like a decent fellow, but he made a movie that is only occasionally good. The disc has a nice selection of special features, but the visual quality is awful, regardless of who is at fault.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Two Deleted Songs by Olivia Newton-John
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