SERIAL MOM (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Satirical Presentation of Strong Violence, Vulgar Language, and Sexual Episodes

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Directed by: John Waters

Written by: John Waters

Starring: Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Matthew Lillard, Scott Wesley Morgan, Walt MacPherson & Patricia Dunnock

John Waters is an odd guy. His more than likable behind-the-scenes persona is instantly recognizable, but his filmography is definitely hit-or-miss and aimed at a very specific audience. With severe gross-out exploitation, low-budget satire, and a no-holds-barred sex comedy under his belt, would it be any surprise to discover that John Waters wrote a 50’s-esque serial killer comedy? Not at all. Whether that comedy comes off successfully is another matter entirely as 1994’s SERIAL MOM has its moments, but ultimately falls victim to heavy-handed satire in the final third that simply doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the film.

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On the outside, Beverly Sutphin appears to be your average, suburban mother. She cooks, cleans, and chats with friends. However, this tidy homemaker has a very dark side as she has a secret habit of knocking off anyone who gets on her bad side. Beverly Sutphin is a mother first and a serial killer second. Two local detectives have stumbled across her web of murders and are hot on her trail. Meanwhile, Beverly’s family begins to suspect that there’s something not quite right with her.

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One thing that John Waters really nails down in SERIAL MOM is a picturesque sort of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER suburbia that happens to hold a serial killer. On a budget of 13 million, Waters makes every shot look good. The kills are easily the best parts of the movie as each one is creative and has an over-the-top quirk that makes it funny in spite of all the dark deeds on the screen. The film also has a number of other comedic moments that work very well. The best of these involves Beverly’s harassment of a poor unsuspecting neighbor with extremely obscene phone calls. There are a number of jokes that fall flat though. John Waters seems to want us to laugh merely from him putting a serial killer story in a seemingly peaceful setting. Though that is pretty silly and makes for some good dark comedy (including Beverly trying to clean a murder weapon), that long running joke only works for so long before it becomes a bit tedious.

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Kathleen Turner (THE WAR OF THE ROSES) seems to be having a blast as the title killer/mother. As Beverly, she keeps a chipper smile plastered across her face for a majority of the running time and plays the character as a deranged “do-gooder” in getting rid of her victims (who set her off through minor annoyances like not recycling, stealing parking spots, and failing to rewind VHS tapes). The rest of the family members are played well by Sam Waterston (as the naïve husband), Ricki Lake (as the hopeless romantic daughter) and Matthew Lillard (as the horror-obsessed son). There’s nothing to complain about in these performances, but the script simply doesn’t hand them a lot to work with (especially in the final third of the film).

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While the plot of SERIAL MOM seems very straightforward, the film works well as a decent brand of demented comedy up until a certain point. The film reaches its peak at an hour into the story and there are still 30 minutes of screen time to fill. This is where the film takes a serious nose dive as it becomes a wacky courtroom comedy for the final third. Waters was clearly making an obvious point about how our culture and the media turn murder trials into sensations that light up the country as well as turning the accused into cultural icons. I felt these points weren’t necessarily bad ones to make, but they felt like they belonged in an entirely separate movie (maybe, SERIAL MOM 2). As a result, the plot feels wildly uneven and lacks a lot of the simple laughs during the finale.

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Though I love John Waters as a unique personality in the world of filmmaking, I always find his filmography to be a bit of a mixed bag with hits and misses. SERIAL MOM is a decent enough hit for the first hour and then becomes a disappointing miss in its final act. There are merits to recommend this movie on in that Kathleen Turner is hugely enjoyable as the suburbanite murderer and the cheery atmosphere makes for a unique dark comedy. However, the faults are too big to discount. In the end, SERIAL MOM should serve as passing fun for those with a twisted sense of humor, but I can’t imagine it doing much for anyone else.

Grade: C+

DUMB AND DUMBER TO (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude and Sexual Humor, partial Nudity, Language and some Drug References

DUMB AND DUMBER TO, US advance poster art, from left: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, 2014. ©Universal

Directed by: Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly

Written by: Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly, Sean Anders, John Morris, Bennett Yellin & Mike Cerrone

Starring: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Laurie Holden, Kathleen Turner, Brady Bluhm, Steve Tom, Rachel Melvin & Rob Riggle

Two decades is a long time to wait for a sequel. Many might argue that it’s too long, especially since the original DUMB AND DUMBER walked a fine line between being stupid and clever. For those not in the know, that 1994 comedy followed the road trip of two innocent idiots caught up in the deadly antics of a kidnapping. The film launched the careers of the Farrelly brothers (whose best film is still THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY in my book) and catapulted Jim Carrey into being an A-list star. In DUMB AND DUMBER TO, the Farrellys and the two leads (Carrey and Jeff Daniels) return in an attempt to recapture lighting in a bottle. It doesn’t work out so well this time around.

DUMB AND DUMBER TO, from left: Jeff Daniels, Jim Carrey, 2014. ph: Hopper Stone/©Universal

Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne are back on another adventure after discovering that Harry has an illegitimate daughter. This unexpected news couldn’t come at a more convenient time, especially since Harry is suffering from kidney problems and needs a donor to give up a vital organ for him. Unwilling to part with his own body part and willing to drive him across country, Lloyd takes Harry out on the road to track down his now-grown kid. Unfortunately, the bumbling morons wind up in the sights of more criminals and wacky mayhem ensues.

DUMB AND DUMBER TO, from left: Rachel Melvin, Jim Carrey, 2014. ph: Hopper Stone/©Universal

The biggest problem with DUMB AND DUMBER TO is that with six(!) screenwriters, the film packs in less than half of the jokes and chuckle-worthy dialogue of the original film. It would be quite a task to perfectly nail that 90’s comedy nostalgic vibe that was exclusive to the time period, but the Farrellys are trying way too hard. They’re literally throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. The same can be said of rehashed basic plot points (many scenes play off as a weaker semi-remade moments from the first film) and other jokes are just plain recycled (though they don’t work nearly as well on the second time). This can especially be shown in end credits that showcase clips from both films side-to-side in almost a meta way of saying “See, we did it again!”

DUMB AND DUMBER TO, from left: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, 2014. ph: Hopper Stone/©Universal

One big positive is that Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels slip right back into the roles of Lloyd and Harry with little to no effort. These actors disappear into the beloved characters, even if the writing isn’t quite up to snuff of giving them many interesting things to do in the overall story. However, it felt like Lloyd and Harry were too stupid during certain scenes. They were idiots in the first movie, but they weren’t as obnoxious and annoying as they are here. It’s almost like the 20 years have further drained IQ points out of their characters to an even more far-fetched level. The predecessor never got too over-the-top in a way that seemed Seth Macfarlane-like, but this second installment mainly focuses on making a more outlandish repeat of the first movie…resulting in a handful of solid laughs and a lot of awkward unfunny silence. Rob Riggle is the only welcomed addition to the cast of characters. He’s sort of wasted in a side part, but not nearly as much as Laurie Holden as the main baddie.

DUMB AND DUMBER TO, from left: Laurie Holden, Rob Riggle, 2014. ph: Hopper Stone/©Universal

To add insult to injury, DUMB AND DUMBER TO goes out on a huge anti-climax. The ending felt like it was shrug-inducing and not nearly as exciting or funny as it was intended to be. This being said, the last third is where some of the really nifty twists that I didn’t see coming pop up. I also laughed at some funny scenes in the second half, but the first hour was almost a struggle to get through. I shouldn’t have to look for things to laugh at in a comedy like this as the film’s primary goal should be giving me things to laugh at right away. That’s a problem.

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DUMB AND DUMBER TO was never going to be high art or the best comedy of the year, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. While I can praise Carrey and Daniels’s chemistry together after all these years and there are funny scenes, the movie suffers from a so-so script and overly familiar jokes (some downright recycled from the first movie). It’s not nearly as bad as the godawful prequel DUMB AND DUMBERER, but that’s not exactly praise you want to aiming for in a sequel to a beloved cult classic that’s two decades old. Some people may outright love this sequel, but I was let down. It’s a middle-of-the-road experience as a whole.

Grade: C

THE WAR OF THE ROSES (1989)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Danny DeVito

Written by: Michael J. Leeson

(based on the novel THE WAR OF THE ROSES by Warren Adler)

Starring: Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito, Marianne Sagebrecht, Dan Castellaneta, Sean Astin, Heather Fairfield

Marriage can be a beautiful thing and most of the time it is. After all, what could be more romantic than showing that special someone you want to spend the rest of your life with them? Bad marriages usually lead to divorces and bad divorces can lead to grown adults acting like stubborn children. This is the center of dark comedy that WAR OF THE ROSES focuses on. Based on Warren Adler’s novel of the same name and being the second theatrically released directorial effort by Danny DeVito, ROSES is sure to be a polarizing experience for anyone who’s ever known a couple going through a similar separation.

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Narrated by lawyer Gavin D’Amato relating an old experience to his new client, the film begins with a young man named Oliver making the acquaintance of Barbara. The two come from different strokes of life, but fall head over heels for one another. The couple are quickly married and wind up having two children. Life is difficult as Oliver is carving out a career and Barbara tries to keep her cool with the ever-growing stress, but things are working out. Ironically as life becomes more successful for the family, the married Roses head in different emotional directions. Eventually things lead to a messy divorce and it becomes a battle between the couple for ownership of their huge house. Both Oliver and Barbara play dirty, go low, and become completely despicable people. It’s all for the entertainment of the viewer and this is one hell of an entertaining film.

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Danny DeVito specializes in making dark comedies. Of his eight visits to the directing chair, six of those projects have been dark comedies. WAR OF THE ROSES is actually on the lighter side of his twisted laughs. It’s not as dark as THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN or DUPLEX, nor does it reach the outrageously gruesome levels of DEATH TO SMOOCHY. However, it can get uncomfortably awkward on plenty of occasions. The material can be a little sensitive and emotionally cringe-worthy in nature. Things go far over-the-top, but the film works far better when the jabs are kept under a mask of civility and strictly to insult-heavy verbal sparring. The final third is where the material spirals out of control onto a ludicrous level of mayhem. It is also here where the movie has what I will call the weakest moment.

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Nearly every detail up until the final third (with a pointless scene here and there) were intricately set up. The chemistry between Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner was palpable. The viewer could easily buy that these two would be in love with each other and the fall out of love was handled realistically well. We can buy where both characters are coming from and the film doesn’t become an all-out battle of the sexes. By the time things have reached a ridiculous suspension of disbelief, viewers might find themselves rooting purely for one character or for both of them to lose in some way. Everything was structured in a real world setting and things take a turn for the far-fetched finale that drags on a bit too long.

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The conclusion may have packed more of a punch if some time was shaved off and the same can be said for a couple of other moments. The technique of cutting back to DeVito’s lawyer character narrating was used too often and took me out of the story at hand for a few minutes every time we saw him again. There is also one particularly not-so-funny scene that both fell flat and was utterly pointless. With these pacing and narrative problems aside, the movie is very entertaining for those who like a funny view of darker topics.

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For a DeVito directed dark comedy, WAR OF THE ROSES is on the lighter side in content and on the more successful side in overall execution. ROSES is a comedy that I’m glad I hunted down (it’s currently out of print, but available on for rent on Amazon Instant). I wouldn’t pay an outrageous price for a hard copy, but I would recommend renting it or borrowing it from a friend. This is an unconventionally polar opposite of a romantic comedy that delivers on the laughs, even if things get too wild and crazy at points.

Grade: B

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