The tour de force of Shortbus is a scene during which three cute gay boys sing the national anthem to—and into—each other’s bits and pieces. This inventive scenario is emblematic of the simultaneous charm, sexiness, and dysfunction of John Cameron Mitchell’s long-gestating follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The film’s explicit sex scenes are intimate and casually choreographed—reflective, Mitchell might say, of how his audience gets their groove on in real life—except the witty banter and political commentary that speciously blows into the story at intermittent moments isn’t so unforced.
Shortbus works hard to suggest that New York City, post-9/11, has become a small place after all (and, given that just about everyone—including this site’s editors—seems to know or has been macked on by one of its stars, Mitchell may be right). There’s a sense here that if the film were stripped of its sex scenes, its Manhattan locale was swapped for a Jersey ‘burb, and the songs of the Shortbus salon’s drag performers were replaced with Frou Frou and Coldplay anthems we might be watching Zach Braff’s Garden State all over again. But while Mitchell’s insular characters are prone, like Care Bears, to twee musings (“I felt I was shooting creative energy into the world and that there was no war,” someone says), the director isn’t so full of shit as to color-coordinate their clothes with the wallpaper in their rooms.
Mitchell uses a dubious but vividly aestheticized tableau of New York City to sweep in and out of the lives of characters whose problems are so weakly articulated they that hardly inspire sympathy: Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm; James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy), boyfriends looking to bring a third man into their relationship; and Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix whose real name is the film’s great comic-tragic revelation. At Shortbus, amid drag artists, musicians, and copulating masses, the two Jamies will find Ceth (Jay Brannan) to play with, Sofia will give someone else an orgasm in an elaborate scenario too twisted to spoil, and a former queer mayor of New York City (a stand-in, natch, for Ed Koch) bemoans how little he did to battle the AIDS crisis during the ’80s.
Mitchell sets the forced pathos of his characters against a backdrop of post-Giuliani New York City dry-heaving from its own worries (note the frequent blackouts), but Mitchell understands sex (at least the boy-on-boy variety)—what ignites it, redirects its focus, and stops it cold—more than he does his party-happening people, whose backstories resonate as meekly as the director’s fuzzy post-9/11 philosophizing. Which is perhaps to say that as sexy and sweet-hearted as Shortbus is, in the end it’s a trifle—a work in progress like its characters.
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