Shortbus (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With something as controversial as Shortbus, you can never get a sense of what you're in for based on word-of-mouth, especially when there's no consensus. Some think it's a masterpiece (or nearly so). Others think it's an abomination. Such a division of opinion is expected when a filmmaker crosses the daring line of combining narrative with hard-core sex scenes. Although Shortbus doesn't work as porn (and I don't believe it's intended to), it also doesn't work as a serious drama. The storyline is juvenile and the characters remain poorly developed and incomplete.

There are four protagonists, and we're introduced to them during an opening scene that features urination in a bathtub, domination, sex toys, auto-fellatio, and hard-core heterosexual action (with penetration). There are two "money shots" and lots of positions. Technology plays a big part in these scenes and others. Cameras and camcorders abound. Nearly everything in the movie is either being photographed or recorded. This is probably intended to say something about society's penchant for voyerism, although if director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) is trying to make a more specific point, he doesn't achieve it.

Sonia (Sook-Yin Lee) is a sex therapist/couples counselor who has never achieved an orgasm. For her, Shortbus becomes the quest for one, much like in dozens of porn films. Two of her clients are Jamie and James (P J DeBoy and Paul Dawson), a gay pair who are considering opening up their five-year old relationship to give it some spice. After all, as one of them remarks, "Monogamy is for straight people." The fourth participant in these proceedings is dominatrix Severin (Linsday Beamish), who hides her real identity and loneliness behind a facade that includes whips and leather outfits. Her apartment overlooks the former World Trade Center site, which leads to the following question: When you're taking a picture at Ground Zero, do you smile?

The problem with Shortbus is that it is dramatically uninteresting and thinks it's more profound than it actually is. There are some promising moments early on, as when everyone sheds a tear of sadness after orgasming (or, in Sonia's case, not orgasming). Mitchell's big point is that sex does not necessarily equate with intimacy and one can still be lonely despite having a constant bed-partner. This isn't exactly a surprising or interesting insight, and Shortbus doesn't do much with it besides state the obvious and belabor the point.

The title refers to an offbeat sex club where anything goes. A former mayor of New York spends his time there, philosophizing and looking for a kiss or two. The club is run by "drag legend" Justin Bond. There are orgies, raunchy games of truth & dare, and all varieties of kinks and perversions. Mitchell does a good job of documenting the scene inside one of these places (where few Americans dare to tread), including showing that not all naked people are pretty to look at. However, this would be better suited to a documentary than a narrative project. The movie also contains a good portion of humor, which to an extent defuses its ponderous and self-important tone (this becomes almost unbearable during the - no pun intended - climax). Most memorable is a gay threesome that includes the most hilarious and off-color rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" ever likely to be committed to celluloid.

The acting is a cut above what it is in porn movies, but no one in Shortbus is going to receive an Oscar nomination. Sook-Yin Lee is the best of an adequate bunch - there are times when we care about her character despite the writing deficiencies. There isn't anything she doesn't do for the sake of her art. She is shown graphically masturbating, engaging in heterosexual and lesbian sex, and showing pretty much everything to the camera. The rest of the cast tends to be either stiff (again, no pun intended) or over-the-top.

Mitchell has stated that his goal with Shortbus was to make a serious film that incorporates hardcore material. To an extent, he has done that. The problem is it's not a good movie. The single unique characteristic of Shortbus and the reason it is receiving praise as being edgy and groundbreaking is because there's a lot of graphic sex and none of it is erotic or arousing. On the other hand, delete the sex scenes and you're left with a limp, arty misfire of a movie that has too little of interest to say.

Shortbus (United States, 2006)

Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, PJ DeBoy, Lindsay Beamish, Peter Stickles, Justin Bond
Screenplay: John Cameron Mitchell
Cinematography: Frank G. DeMarco
Music: Yo La Tengo
U.S. Distributor: ThinkFilm
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2006-10-06
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1