There are probably better things a person could do with his time than spend it watching the boorish comedy, “Sordid Lives.” You could, for instance, sit cross-legged in the middle of your living room and wait for a spider to crawl up the wall. You could slide into bed, stare at the ceiling, and contemplate your next visit to the dentist. Or you could simply jab a sharp pointy object under the nail of your right big toe.
But why, you may well ask, would a reviewer choose to watch a film so dreadfully tedious and unfunny as “Sordid Lives” in the first place if he didn’t have to? And I didn’t have to. Because, as the saying goes, somebody’s got to do it. And because I love you; I care about you. Because some day you may be in a video shop and see this title on the shelf and say to yourself, What do people think of this film? Is it worth my time and money? Besides, sometimes a person feels the need to stick a sharp pointy object under his toenail.
Written and directed by Del Shores, whose previous work has mainly been with TV and with the screenplay for the 1990 film “Daddy’s Dyin’… Who’s Got the Will?,” the 2000 movie “Sordid Lives” first saw daylight as a stage play. It shows it. The movie is almost entirely dialogue driven, its characters moving through a succession of tenuously related scenes and talking. And talking. And talking. And when they’re not talking, they’re crying or bickering or yelling or screaming at the top of their voices. They carry on this way for the better part of two hours without once saying or doing anything meaningful or funny. It may be a record.
The pretext that brings them all together is the death of Grandma Peggy in a small Texas community of stereotyped, middle-class yahoos. The movie’s tagline is “A black comedy about white trash,” and I would imagine the characters could be described as trailer-park trash. But the characters are not white trash exactly, nor do they live in trailers. Still, trailer park white trash is probably the best way to describe them in general, their characterizations so hackneyed that almost any negative thing you could think of in terms of “trailer park white trash” would fit them.
They are all, indeed, horrid people, and there are so many of them you need a scorecard to keep them in check. Worse, they are all portrayed in such clichés that the people of Texas might easily form a coalition and sue the studio for libel. Sure, these kinds of people live in Texas. They live in Michigan and Massachusetts and California, too, but they’ve all been parodied many times before, so why make another movie about them? I’ve never seen such mean-spirited contempt for any society as a whole as this movie represents Southern folk. Goofy accents, weight problems, terrible hairdos, curling irons, loud shirts and blouses, chewing gum, cheap fifties’ furniture, Dallas Cowboy coffee mugs–the whole nine yards are expended in making every person in the show appear as crass and stupid as possible, with no redeeming comic value for the audience.
Moreover, I fail to understand why so many well-known actors agreed to take part in the picture. Did they need the money? Or hadn’t they read the script? I mean, Olivia Newton-John, Delta Burke, Bonnie Bedelia, Beau Bridges? Surely, they could have done something more meaningful with their time than participate in this muddle. Like staying home in bed and watching spiders and thinking about their dentist and trying not to jab sharp pointy objects under their toenails.
Anyway, Grandma Peggy dies by tripping over the wooden legs of a man she’s having an affair with in a motel room. That’s the principal gag in the film. The old lady decided in the twilight of her years to let her hair down, so she took up with G.W. Nethercott (Beau Bridges), a fellow with two wooden legs and a wife, Noleta (Delta Burke), he could no longer stand. The grandma’s two daughters, Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia) and LaVonda (Ann Walker), are distraught, which is supposed to explain the constant shrillness of their demeanor.
Newton-John plays Bitsy, a broken-down, country-western nightclub singer; Kirk Geiger plays Todd, Latrelle’s gay actor son (and the only rational fellow in the story); Beth Grant plays Sissy, Grandma Peggy’s younger sister; Leslie Jordan plays Brother Boy Earl, Latrelle and LaVonda’s transvestite sibling, a mental patient always in drag; and Rosemary Alexander plays Dr. Eve Bolinger, a psychiatrist with decidedly unconventional methods of therapy. Their bizarre afflictions and peculiar predilections are intended to be at the core of the comedy, but they merely come off as pathetic.
What can you really say for a comedy that depends upon shopworn insults about dysfunctional families, death, homosexuality, marital problems, mental illness, physical disabilities, and small-mindedness for its humor, and then has the nerve to inject a note of solemn sentiment at the end, as if that would compensate for everything that went before? I found the results by turns boring, maudlin, and repugnant.
The picture quality, despite its 1.74:1 anamorphic transfer, is blurred, generally poorly defined, and fuzzy on inner details. It looks for all the world like an ordinary cable TV broadcast at best. Why? The main culprit appears to be the Sony digital camera it was shot with. Colors are bright enough, but the digital reproduction renders them too dark one minute, too light the next, and mostly muddy in-between. The single benefit of the digital photography, besides its relatively low cost factor, is that it’s clean, free of noticeable grain. Thank heaven for small favors.
There’s very little to say about the sound. It’s reproduced via Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and produces, for all intents and purposes, a virtual mono signal. At least, that’s what it sounds like from the listening position some six or seven feet away from the three front speakers. The audio is very clear, with a good, extended high end, little bass (nor little need for any), and little or no rear-channel signal that I could detect. Dialogue comes through fine, which is all that a film like this needs, so the audio is, I guess, adequate.
For a film that did less business at the box office than most films cost to produce their trailers, the people at Fox have seen fit to gussy up the DVD with more extras than they afford their Studio Classics. Is there no justice? These bonuses include, naturally, the obligatory audio commentary, this one with writer/director Del Shores, producer Sharyn Lane, and various cast members; many minutes worth of stories and interviews with the writer, producer, and cast members; two uncut songs by Olivia Newton-John: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Coming Home”; a series of deleted scenes, including at alternate opening, with or without director and cast commentary; and sixteen scene selections. I wish I could tell you any of this but the two songs were of any interest to me. English is the only spoken language available, as well as the only English subtitles.
Stage plays like “Greater Tuna” and movies like “Waiting for Guffman” and “Fargo” are successful because their eccentric, small-town characters are colorful and fascinating and their plots are about something. The characters in “Sordid Lives” are dull and shrill, and its plot is pointless.
“Sordid Lives” is not the worst movie ever made. “Freddy Got Fingered” has that ground pretty well covered. But “Sordid Lives” comes close. Its stereotypes are insulting, its jokes are unfunny, and its emotions are labored. “Sordid Lives” is a sordid movie.