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John Waters’ Pecker just doesn’t measure up. This limp satire….

To hell with it. I don’t have the stomach or heart to sustain this facetious tone, but even if I did, a full column of phallic putdowns wouldn’t be sufficient payback for writer-director Waters’ stale satire. The middle-school smirkiness of the movie’s title—its protagonist is nicknamed Pecker because, as a child, he pecked at his food—should serve as fair warning. Who could have guessed that the perpetrator of some of the cinema’s most reckless comedic outrages would be reduced to such a craven jape?

Yet again, Waters focuses on the blue-collar tackiness of Charm City, a subject whose bones he picked clean ages ago. He contrasts Bawlmer’s white-trash ambience of thrift shops, snack bars, and strip clubs with Manhattan’s pretentious art scene, a sitting-duck target riddled by the lances of previous satirists.

Eighteen-year-old Pecker (Edward Furlong) serves as the screenplay’s vehicle for juxtaposing these worlds. An obsessive amateur shutterbug, Pecker snaps photos of his family, friends, and neighbors. These are “discovered” by trendy New York art dealer Rorey Wheeler (Lili Taylor). Pecker’s naive, artless images become an overnight sensation, and soon his work is exhibited at the Whitney Museum and dissected in Art Forum. He’s hailed as “a humane Diane Arbus” whose photography serves notice that “irony is dead.”

But Pecker’s unsought media celebrity negatively affects his subjects: his thrift-shop-owner mom (Mary Kay Place), religious fanatic grandmother (Jean Schertler), gay-bar manager big sister (Martha Plimpton), sugar-addict kid sister (Lauren Hulsey), kleptomaniac best friend (Brendan Sexton III), and laundromat operator girlfriend (Christina Ricci). Ultimately, Pecker must choose between Big Apple fame and home sweet home. (If you can’t guess the outcome, here’s a clue, hon.)

An energetic, good-sport acting ensemble does what it can to pump life into Waters’ hackneyed ideas and wheezy gags, but to little avail. (The exception is Ricci’s “stain queen” who imperiously patrols her washers and dryers like Catherine the Great. With her odd, arresting moon face and intense temperament, this extraordinary young actress explodes every vehicle in which she appears.) Arriving in the wake of Pink Flamingos’ 25th anniversary reissue with its legendary sphincter dance and poodle pâté, the director’s new gross-out gags—cockroaches in French fries, mean obese women, anti-pubic-hair rallies—seem especially toothless. The climactic joke, involving art mavens deserting Pecker for a blind photographer, indicates how out of touch Waters has grown. Has he never heard of Jocelyn Moorhouse’s gripping Proof (1991), a serious Australian feature about a sightless photographer?

If Pecker weren’t so poorly made—Waters has learned next to nothing about film technique in his three-decade career—one might be tempted to view it as an allegory of the writer-director’s own artistic dilemma. Like his protagonist, he is (or poses as) a self-taught, hometown naif thrust into the international spotlight.

Perhaps that was once true, but over the years Waters has come to resemble the art-world phonies he mocks in Pecker. Like obligatory artists’ manifestoes contrived to add an illusion of substance to otherwise meaningless works, Waters’ self-conscious magazine and television interviews are smarter and more amusing than his increasingly dim movies. If he hopes to continue his career, he’s going to have to re-prioritize his energies and talents.

Gifted, creative young screen actors are in a terrible bind these days. If they have any artistic integrity (and their bills are paid), they shrink from accepting thankless roles in the megabucks, special-effects-driven action pictures Hollywood currently favors. Rather, they stick to their artistic principles by committing to offbeat independent projects by novice directors. The problem is that, these days, “offbeat” generally means coarse, callous Tarantino clones—Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Feeling Minnesota, Killing Zoe, 2 Days in the Valley. The emotionally constricted tone of these cynical, sadistic projects imprisons performers almost as much as cardboard roles in blockbusters.

David Dobkin’s debut feature, Clay Pigeons, is a case in point. Four top-notch performers are on board: Vince Vaughn (Swingers), Janeane Garofalo (The Truth About Cats and Dogs), Joaquin Phoenix (To Die For), and Georgina Cates (An Awfully Big Adventure.) But they are stymied by first-time screenwriter Matt Healy’s aimless, nasty narrative, which promises black comedy and chills but delivers neither.

Purloining the central gimmick of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Healy introduces Clay (Phoenix), a hicktown Montana auto mechanic who is having an illicit affair with Amanda (Cates), a pal’s randy wife. He is befriended by Lester (Vaughn), a seemingly carefree, truck-driving cowboy, and soon discovers that women around him start turning up dead. It gradually dawns on Clay that Lester is a misogynistic psychopath dedicated to wiping out “people who need killing.” FBI Agent Shelby (Garofalo) arrives to handle the case in which Clay increasingly appears to be the prime suspect.

After a promising pre-credits scene between Clay and Amanda’s husband Earl (Gregory Sporleder), dark humor and suspense give way to gratuitous cruelty. (Witnessing a woman being stabbed in the back while in the throes of anal intercourse is not my idea of entertainment.) Because we’re tipped off to the killer’s identity early on, there’s little to sustain interest apart from what the cast is doing. Phoenix gives another eccentric, emotionally detailed performance, and Cates has a field day as an affectless, puffy-faced slut from hell. Vaughn is creepily genial, though he borrows too heavily from Tommy Udo, Richard Widmark’s grinning sociopath in the 1947 version of Kiss of Death. Garofalo hones sharp comic edges on her lines, though her delivery varies little from that of her familiar work as a stand-up comic.

Eric Edwards’ crisp camerawork is consistently impressive, especially the recurrent cloudscapes and close-ups of cast members framed by swirls of cigarette smoke. John Lurie’s score consists mainly of pop and country recordings: He might have thought twice before including the themes from Deliverance (“Dueling Banjos”) and Midnight Cowboy (“Everybody’s Talking”), thereby forcing comparisons to movies far better than this one.CP