An indie comedy with real balls, and penises, and vaginas, Shortbus uses unsimulated sex scenes to propel its story of vaguely dissatisfied New Yorkers. But writer-director John Cameron Mitchell's long-awaited follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch is more than a stunt. It's a sincere film that explores cynical sexual discord and hopefully concludes that forgiveness and sexual healing can repair the disrupted currents of modern urban life.
Energetic animated interstitials open the film and weave through it, beginning with one that lasciviously allows the "camera"—the filmmaker's one-eyed monster—to caress that great old lady called the Statue of Liberty. Swooping through New York, Mitchell checks in on his characters as they orgasm, in ways that are mostly emotionally dysfunctional. In the process, one character inadvertantly adds his jizz to what looks like a Pollack, a metaphor that at once satirizes abstract expressionism, implicitly self-deprecates Mitchell's own artistic (non-)pretension by use of real sex, and profoundly marvels at how the all-powerful moment of orgasm disappears into the chaos of modern life, forcing us to chase the next "O."
That act of audacity completed, Mitchell moves on to flesh out the characters' woeful and woefully complicated lives. There's the experimentally open relationship of self-centered former child star Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson), an emotionally untethered ex-prostitute. Professional dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish) is also having trouble connecting, so she relishes the opportunity to trade sexual advice for the Platonic companionship of Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who's never had an orgasm (for reasons obvious to us but not to her, she prefers to be called a "couples counsellor").
The circle expands to Sofia's blithe husband Rob (Raphael Barker); a voyeur named Caleb (Peter Stickles), who's been spying on James; and sexually adventurous party boy Ceth (Jay Brannan). The film's title refers to a salon that's a sort of sexual utopia for "the gifted and challenged," as well as a nexus for the large ensemble of characters to rub elbows and consider options. Playing himself, entertainer Justin Bond is the host, or "mistress," of Shortbus; scoffing at the perceived limitations of square society, he takes bottled-up Sofia on a tour of sexual possibility (Bond also makes good use of his Bowie-esque singing voice).
Shortbus is a sexual playground, with a scale of adventure running from conversational lounging to retro adolescent games (Spin-the-Bottle and Truth or Dare) to a room that's one big, naked, harmonious orgy. The character-revealing sex scenes and a sensitive ensemble allow Mitchell to deal with the gamut of sexual dysfunction, from repression to emotional exhaustion. In doing so, Mitchell reminds us how deep sexual identity runs and how inseparable it is from our emotional well-being. Meanwhile, a succession of brown-outs serves as metaphor for attempted connections shorting out until the film's tender and happy "climaxes."
With so many goals on his agenda, Mitchell lets his reach exceed his grasp, but always endearingly. Another filmmaker would write off Ceth as a hopelessly callow stock character, but Mitchell gives him a surprising grace note, shared with an elderly ex-NYC mayor ("I used to want to change the world," the old man says. "Now I just want to leave the room with a little dignity"). And yes, Shortbus explores the character of New York City ("where everyone comes to be forgiven"), as well as the modern American culture war. Name-checking NYC's far-flung left-coast cousins, Mitchell implies that the vastness in between may be less outwardly neurotic perhaps even more repressive and self-deluded than Shortbus' troubled souls.
In his experimental boldness, Mitchell stands out in a too-cautious year at the movies. Bond laments, "It's just like the '60s, only with less hope," but Mitchell does puts us in mind of the joyous abandon of '60s montage and the time's live current of youthful idealism. The number of characters unfortunately tends to reduce their issues to a not-entirely fulfilling succession of sketches, but Mitchell quite wittily deals with a sadly unspeakable topic that's integral to American life. Shortbus is, one might say, a "feel very, very good" movie.
[For Groucho's interview with John Cameron Mitchell, click here.]