**1/2 Stars
(US 1998)

Edward Furlong, Christina Ricci, Mary Kay Place, Brendan Sexton III, Martha Plimpton

Director: John Waters

Writing credits: John Waters

Fine Line Features * 87 minutes

When you have a lesbian strip club, rats vociferously humping in a trash can, and Patricia Hearst, all in one movie, and all against a backdrop of saccharine pop songs no one has heard before, you can be sure you're in John Waters territory. .

Waters' latest endeavor, PECKER, stars the creepy Edward Furlong (of Terminator 2 fame) as Pecker (because his grandma says he's always just pecked at his food, folks, so don't get excited), a Baltimore kid who takes photographs with a cast-off camera from his mother's thrift shop. Pecker is a John Waters alter-ego, in that he takes photos of the ugly, the disgusting, and the tasteless -- ugly women, men having their toupees stolen, the aforementioned rats, trash dumpsters, men "teabagging" (don't ask) male go-go dancers, and, well, you'll just have to see the film for the rest. After all, the Communications Decency act could rear its ugly head again at any moment. This tawdry subject matter inevitably garners the attention of the New York art world, and young Pecker becomes the toast of the New York pretentuati, causing havoc in his personal and family life.

Waters again populates his film with a colorful assortment of bizarros. When Lili Taylor plays the most normal character in the film, you know you're in trouble. This time, the Waters family includes Mary Kay Place as Pecker's pert but clueless mother, Martha Plimpton as his gay bar bartender sister with implied dominatrix tendencies, Mark Joy as his pubic hair-obsessed father, Jean Schertler as his loopy grandmother, the only person in the world with a ventriloquist's dummy of the Virgin Mary, and Lauren Hulsey as his kid sister, Little Krissy. Krissy is perhaps the most disturbing portrayal of a child that I have ever seen, and should make any parent swear off buying Froot Loops forever. The kid is literally strung out on sugar, and watching an 8-year-old drooling into a five-pound bag of sugar is a creepy sight. Rounding out the cast is the creepily adorable Cristina Ricci, looking like a punked-out Betty Boop, as Pecker's anal-retentive laundromat fascist manager girlfriend.

John Waters made his name with such immortal cinematic masterpieces of tastelessnes as POLYESTER and LUST IN THE DUST. His more recent, more mainstream films (SERIAL MOM, HAIRSPRAY) still carry a gleeful, "how-much-can-I-get-away-with" mischievousness, and PECKER is no exception. However, Furlong's limitations as an actor prevent PECKER from living up to its potential. Furlong has yet to show that he can do much more than play sullen adolescents, and his attempt at portraying upbeat perkiness merely makes him creepier than usual. Ricci, on the other hand, probably the most interesting young actress around, handles the strange John Waters universe so deftly that I'm sure we'll see her again in his next film.

PECKER is worth a cheap matinee viewing as an affectionate look at what happens when the pseudo-intellectual art world collides with American trash culture, and finds that it has more in common with the latter than it cares to admit.

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