This review is not for children or religious people who are offended by sex, nudity and homosexuality. Then again, neither is the movie Shortbus.
From John Cameron Mitchell, the director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, comes a movie about achieving sexual and emotional satisfaction by any means possible. Shortbus focuses on several different people and couples who cross paths at a quirky, underground New York bar where anything goes and everything is accepted. Rob (Raphael Barker) and Sophia (Sook-Yin Lee) are a happily married couple, except that Sophia is a sex therapist has never had an orgasm - can she find what she's looking for here? Two of her patients are Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson), a gay couple who have been committed to each other for years, but James is looking to bring other men into the relationship. Jamie doesn't realize that James' depression may have something to do with his new feelings, and that there may be an ulterior motive to his push to add another man, Ceth, to the mix.
To get this out of the way, there is a lot of sex, nudity and homosexuality in Shortbus. The movie is like a porn, only with real actors, an intriguing story and authentic drama. There are plenty of scenes with man-on-man action, man-on-woman action, and just a little bit of woman-on-woman action, with the weight being heavily on the gay sex. There are scenes where three men lay in a circle and pleasure each other. Another where a transvestite talks about using menstrual blood as lipstick ("Just pull out the tampon and apply to the face"). And another, to start off the movie, of a man lying naked on the ground who manages to get his mouth on his own dick and eventually ejaculate into his mouth.
Yet despite all this, or maybe because of it, Shortbus is a good movie. I'm a straight, twenty-something male who sat down to watch this film with a mixed crowd, and while watching men suck each other's dicks is not normally my idea of a good time, director Mitchell somehow pulls it off. Shortbus has a lot of gratuitous sex, especially involving men, but Mitchell presents it in such a straight-forward way that you never get the feeling that he intended the audience to be specifically aroused by what's on screen. Furthermore, the movie is a strange blend of comedy and drama, and Mitchell takes advantage of that every step of the way. Some of the things in his movie would normally be quite shocking, but his matter-of-fact approach makes much of the situations humorous. The absurdity of what's going on and the superfluous nature of the constant sex acts make Shortbus truly entertaining.
If you're still reading this, then that probably means Shortbus may be a movie for you. It is consistently funny, but not in a laugh-out-loud kind of way, and also offers a wide array of intriguing characters, all with their own highlights and flaws. None of the performances are Oscar-worthy, but they all work, and Mitchell's writing is nearly as good as it was in Hedwig.
The movie does begin to feel a bit over long in parts, especially near the end of the second act and the beginning of the third act, as the shock value of the first act has faded and we aren't quite to the climax yet, pun intended. A little tightening in a few areas could have shortened the running time a bit and made the movie all the more cohesive, but it is still very well-paced for the most part.
Shortbus is definitely not for everyone, but it is not a movie made just for gay men. If you're open to watching just about anything on screen, or you liked Hedwig, then you'll probably find something to enjoy about Shortbus.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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