Squares shouldn't pontificate on kink, and The Notorious Bettie Page illustrates it. Such a wasted chance to explore the political ramifications of illicit cheesecake: No less than film itself, pin-ups can serve as cultural barometers, and to American pop history Page's leather-wrapped keister was as iconic of the underground 1950s as Betty Grable's healthy legs were of the mainstream '40s. Both Betties paradoxically took the dirt out of showing flesh via projections of sunny wholesomeness, yet Mary Harron is much less interested in exploring Page's tantalizing contradictions than in depredating another decade through the pane of caricature -- the mock-politicized '60s of I Shot Andy Warhol, the soulless '80s of American Psycho, and now the pitiably unmellow '50s, all for giggles. The opener plays out in monochromatic 1955, an adults-only Times Square bookshop for furtive patrons fumbling for "something with unusual footwear;" the place is then busted as part of the anti-smut campaign led by the head-prude, Senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn), who declares the "insidious filth" of stroke mags a bigger threat to American virtue than communism. Where's Page, the go-to lass for spanking reels and bondage knots? Properly waiting outside the courtroom with white gloves, incarnated as an all-perk doll by Gretchen Mol. The flashback shows her growing up a demure yet lively young lady in Nashville, with a cheerfulness so mighty not even a gang rape can dampen it; she hops a Greyhound to NYC to follow her dreams of becoming am actress, but learns that her figure is more in demand.
From Patsy Cline to rock 'n' roll goes the soundtrack as she hits the big city, though, taking a cue from the Wizard of Oz marquee glimpsed earlier, black-and-white doesn't switch to Technicolor until later on, especially in Page's nudist sessions with Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson). Until then, she's only too happy to be devoured by the snapshots of Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor), the genial bro 'n' sis team of quasi-porno photographers who knew how to market the star's mix of exhibitionistic high spirits and dominatrix naughtiness. "It takes all kinds" is their live-and-let-live axiom for customers looking for catfights and leather boots, but for the filmmaker it only takes one kind, namely in the central performance -- Mol's Page is a study in nose-crinkling and Southern beaming, as monotonous as Taylor's chipmunky hopping-around in Warhol or Christian Bale's Tom Cruise impression in American Psycho. (Anyone can look mysterious in Page's dark bangs and stockings; Renée Zellweger did, for Pete's sake.) The one-note characterizations are characteristic of Harron, who, in her spurious search for transgression, flattens each epoch into a static, bloodless thesis; her hypothesis written in advance, there's no need to probe the notion of performance that goes into posing and acting or the nutty irony of Page chiding Jared Harris for his profanity while spread-eagled and ball-gagged. A director of actual curiosity (Haynes, Campion, Waters, Breillat) would have found the soul behind the raunch; Harron simply dissolves to the stained-glass Madonna and calls it a day. Surely making her story this uninteresting is more indecent than anything Bettie was ever involved in.
Like Bettie Page, the characters in American Dreamz seem to exist for the lenses, only the cameras are employed for TV instead of clandestine photography. Indeed, success here, in both entertainment and politics, basically amounts to palming off counterfeit identities before an applauding public, with the host of the scandalously popular faux-American Idol program an even more powerful overlord than the U.S. President. Not that he can savor it -- even getting the astronomical numbers for his pop show, Hugh Grant's Simon Cowellesque judge just can't shake off the "creeping dread" of self-loathing. Elsewhere, Dennis Quaid, the fumbling American Leader, wakes up to the victory of reelection and decides to stay in bed soaking info from books and newspapers only to grow depressed upon learning the world is a mess, mainly because of him. The two leaders could be disillusioned mirror reflections of each other, yet Quaid deep down is an honest jackass, in the political game just so his mother could show his dad that "any idiot could do it;" Grant is far closer to ruthless careerist Mandy Moore, a karaoke crooner and Jessica Simpson-wannabe who sees the show as a launching pad out of Rubesville, Ohio. Meanwhile, over at an Iraqi terrorist boot-camp, Sam Golzari, a showtunes-loving young recruit who can't even hold on to a gun right, is shipped off to the Orange County as a sleeper agent; his mom died during an American bombing, but he can't help grooving to A Chorus Line.
Satire, people, satire -- anyone can shout it, not many can do it. Paul Weitz wants to skewer the system that has sired both Bush and William Hung, but without toeing over the commercial line that's won him his American Pie stripes; as result, the film, like the equally white-gloved Thank You For Smoking, shrewdly dilutes any real venom so that none of the targets gets more than a soft ribbing while audiences get a handjob. The Prez's own ratings have not been so hot, so Quaid's Dubya facsimile lands a judging role in the American Dreamz finale to boost his numbers, courtesy of the chief-of-staff Svengali (Willem Dafoe) who feeds him happy-pills as well as his own speeches over an ear piece. Bored with his own triumph, Grant orders "human interest" injected into the show -- the starstruck Golzani is brought in as contestant and, when it looks like he might make it as a finalist, he's ordered by the terrorists leaders to take out the "head of the serpent" by martyrizing himself as a human bomb as the whole world watches. "Reality" turns shaky, the President apologizes on live TV about the Middle East situation and then caresses the American flag, electronically waving in a billboard-sized screen -- "Are Americans to blame for America?" is what Golzani wants to know, before passing the explosives over to Chris Klein, Moore's freshly dumped beau and wounded "war hero." Lord knows, the pieces are all in place for a slashing Preston Sturges jamboree. All that's missing are balls.
If nothing else, American Dreamz courts mild progressivism by positing international terrorism and national ignorance as kosher for laffs; Kinky Boots, in the meantime, uses comedy for full-on regression, all the way back to drag-queens as cuddly sass-machines who gave straight dudes lessons in tolerance while making sure every potential Pandora's box of sexual fluidity was kept safely sealed. Chiwetel Ejiofor, last seen pumping some vitality around the edges of Inside Man, is the adorable chick-with-a-dick in Julian Jarrod's tepid British comedy, who helps rescue buttoned-down businessman Joel Edgerton's failing shoe factory by designing red-lurid stiletto boots, much to the shock (shock!) of the conservative locals. As befits the noxious treacle still dribbling from the Full Monty well, all sexual or identity issues are shuffled aside in favor of the most meretricious of cultural-clashes, every guffaw and trannies-are-people-too hug mapped out in advance -- Ejiofor's Lola is too tame and asexual a creation to raise any transgressive hell among the working-class small-towners, who are all too happy to be enlightened by this exotic bird. Meanwhile, audiences who gave Breakfast at Pluto a miss can relax and condescend to a Britain where transvestites are no less leprechauny than the old ladies gasping at the "outrageous" footwear. That's progress?
Reviewed April 27, 2006.