Note to listeners: this movie review is of a sexually explicit film, so some of the language is frank.
Contemporary Hollywood movies are ravenous for bloodletting and squeamish about sex. This is a perverse reversal of priorities. The MPAA, which rates the movies, is a big part of the problem, unfairly penalizing movies like Shortbus , which had to be released unrated. Sex is not only the subject of the film; when the actors do the deed, they’re really doing it. Everybody’s consenting, and it’s all very cute and sweet. The only thing offensive about Shortbus is that quite a bit of the sex looked to me like it was unprotected.
The film follows a bevy of semi-fictional New Yorkers. Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a Chinese-Canadian sex therapist, is counseling a gay couple. Jamie (PJ DeBoy), a former child actor, is suffocating his boyfriend, a former hustler, the deeply unhappy James (Paul Dawson). At first, you are taken aback by how bad the acting is. But as the scene evolves into a fight between all three, the writing saves the day. "You don’t just dole out breakthroughs," says Sofia. "What’s your problem?" Demands Jamie. "I’m pre-orgasmic," she says. Jamie asks, "Does that mean you’re about to have one?"
Writer/director John Cameron Mitchell has hewed his characters close to the lives of the actors, a good way to handle non-professional or inexperienced performers; the actors wrote much of their own dialog. Their willingness to show you their private sides – and their private parts – develops an intimacy that’s more refreshing than technical chops.
A half-dozen characters’ needs and frustrations lead them to a crossroads: Shortbus, an exclusive bohemian hang-out and sexual smorgasbord, presided over Justin Bond, a famous gay personality, playing himself. It’s telling that the orgy room is called the "sex not bombs" room. "So in real life, are you a top or a bottom?" asks one man. "Let me put it another way: do you think we should get out of Iraq?"
New Yorkers are hothouse flowers. While Kinsey proved that sexual variation is the norm, New Yorkers are just up front about their fetishes, proclivities, and above all, expectations. It’s very refreshing to hang out with them for two hours. And even a third act maudlin turn can’t dampen the high spirits for long, and, of course, it ends with a bang.
The film is an argument that the solution to the world’s problems is an orgasm. Consider the bonobo. Unlike the common chimpanzees, bonobos have a society with almost no violence. Scientists have postulated that this is because, ten to twenty times a day, the bonobos have sex. If morality is the lessening of suffering, maybe we should rethink our priorities. By the way, this is a heck of a date movie. Just not a first date, please.
If you live in or around Bloomington, Indiana, you can catch Shortbus at the Ryder Film Series, but you’ll have to move fast. This and other theater, music, and movie reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wfiu.org. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.