'Shortbus" contains the most shocking, unconventional, certain-to-offend-the-patriotic movie moment I've seen since Chris Rock fought smoking crack in a stars-and-stripes-emblazoned shirt in "New Jack City."
I won't get into explicit details, but I will say the moment, which involves three naked men and a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," led the older, male screening monitor to walk out of the theater, not to return. That alone earns "Shortbus" a spot in my cool book.
"Shortbus" is the latest from John Cameron Mitchell, who gave us the transsexual rock opera "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." It's also the latest art-house film not afraid to drop bits of graphic sexual content in its story. You thought seeing Chloe Sevigny get up close and personal with Vincent Gallo in "The Brown Bunny" was intense and provocative? The opening, full-frontal-filled minutes of "Shortbus" alone make that "Brown Bunny" moment look like a scene out of a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan comedy.
"It's just like the '60s, only with less hope," bisexual party host Justin Bond (as himself) says as a roomful of naked bodies intertwine in the titular sex club most of the movie is set in. He says this to Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a woman whose inability to achieve orgasms doesn't stop her from being a sex therapist for other couples. One of those couples, troubled gay pairing Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson), hip her to the club. Once there, she makes contact with many sorts, including Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix who wants to hang up the whips and chains and live a normal life.
While the sex is unbridled, uncensored and certainly in-your-face, "Shortbus" is more neurotic than erotic. Mitchell gives us a post-9/11 New York seen through the eyes of sexually liberated yet emotionally bruised lonely-hearts looking, nay aching, for something more.
But "Shortbus" is a film you may respect more than enjoy. While Mitchell excels in giving us flesh-and-blood, warts-and-all characters, he also gives us a story with conflicted messages. The movie tells us that sex is and isn't a big deal, saying the same thing about sex that Homer Simpson famously said about drinking: It's the cause of andsolution to all our problems. I will say it's one of the more upbeat art-house films to include hard-core sexual activity. It practically gives underground sex clubs a good name, filling this den of depravity with colorful folk and a hip, happening atmosphere.
In the end, it's all one, big love-in, as the climactic sing-along/orgy smacks of the same kind of unspoken, unprejudiced bonding I haven't seen since the ending of another free-love classic, "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." (It also reminded me of the "Don't dream it, be it" pool scene from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," except longer and drier -- up to a point.) Confident yet contradictory, "Shortbus" is a bold, carnal free-for-all that gets overshadowed by its own blind -- and naked -- ambition.
Staff writer Craig D. Lindsey can be reached at 829-4760, firstname.lastname@example.org or blogs.newsobserver.com/unclecrizzle.