“Welcome to film hell,” a character intones near the beginning
of John Water’s would-be satire of the movie business. The
line’s addressed to an audience at a Hollywood premiere that’s
about to be invaded by self-styled cinema terrorists, but it
might as well be directed to those unfortunate enough to be
watching “Cecil B. DeMented” itself. This is one lousy picture.

Waters was once embraced by a small group of fans as a master
of gleefully overwrought bad taste, but in the age of “Me,
Myself and Irene” and “Scary Movie” his taste seems to have
mellowed and only the badness remains. His new effort
apparently still wants to shock while simultaneously making
some sort of statement in favor of independent filmmaking as
against the studio system, but it’s so terribly written,
clumsily directed, dreadfully acted and shabbily edited that
it makes one long for a slick Hollywood flick, however
brainless and prefabricated it might be.

Water’s debacle has to do with an arrogant, aging star named
Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) who’s kidnapped by a gang
of film geeks led by the eponymous crackpot (Stephen Dorff);
his intention is to force her to star in his guerrilla picture,
in which she will actually lead armed attacks against the
forces of conventional filmmaking (represented by the Maryland
Film Commission, Teamster workers and a troupe shooting a
“Forrest Gump” sequel in Baltimore). A plot constructed
around the notion of hit-and-run moviemaking can work, of
course–“Ed Wood” used the idea brilliantly, and even Steve
Martin’s disappointing “Bowfinger” had its moments (as did
Vittorio De Sica’s much-underrated “After the Fox” back
in 1966). But Waters has nothing coherent to say on the
subject. He apparently thinks it’s amusing just to take a
flock of obnoxious, irritating characters and have them
parade across the screen for ninety minutes, mouthing inane
dialogue and rushing about chaotically. There’s no structure
to “Cecil D. DeMented”–it’s just a succession of lumbering
episodes, each drearier than the last. Even one with a
potentially funny premise–like that built on the notion that
a “Forrest Gump” sequel might star Kevin Nealon, who makes a
brief cameo appearance–is destroyed by poor writing and
incredibly shoddy helming. Nor does the picture manage the
bad-boy shock moments the director was once known for. Having
Patty Hearst do a cameo in a script about a hostage won over
by her captors is hardly a clever ploy, and basing another
scene on the image of a crowded, all-male audience reacting
in unison, in Pee-Wee Herman fashion, to a porno flick falls,
if you’ll pardon the expression, desperately flat.

Under the circumstances it’s understandable that the actors
flail about miserably. Griffith may get points for being
willing to lampoon her own image, but she’s still embarrassing.
Dorff proves remarkably uncharismatic as he broods, shouts and
struts about to no comedic purpose. Lesser lights like Alicia
Witt, Adrian Genier, Larry Gilliard, Jr. and Jack Noseworthy
put in considerable effort, but to no positive effect; when
Noseworthy, for example, has to launch into an excruciating
diatribe as a straight makeup man who longs to be gay, it’s
positively painful to watch.

There are, to be sure, a few in-jokes about the business that
score in “Cecil B. DeMented.” The opening credit sequence,
showcasing humorous film titles on marquees and going sonically
awry with the listings for music and sound, generates some
chuckles; and the notion of a director’s cut of “Patch Adams”
is inherently funny (though nothing is made of it). But
overall the picture is almost entirely mirthless. At one point
another character reads a second pertinent line: “Somebody’s
got to pay for this insult.” By the time “Cecil B. DeMented”
careens to a close, the viewer can only wish this were so; the
movie is rancid Waters indeed.