Few things are as excruciating as bad camp. And that, unfortunately, is what “Die, Mommie, Die!” is. Mark Rucker’s filmization of Charles Busch’s play–a loving send-up of the sort of overwrought women’s pictures that flourished in the forties, fifties and sixties, with Busch himself playing, in drag of course, the Joan Crawford-Lana Turner-Susan Hayworth heroine–can been seen as a jokey counterpart to Todd Haynes’s “Far from Heaven.” But that film transcended its models, investing them with a resonance and depth they’d never imagined. Rucker’s movie just riffs on its predecessors, affectionately perhaps but to no greater purpose than a television sketch would. (In fact, one can imagine it–if the ostentatiously raunchy stuff were removed–as a skit on the old Carol Burnett show, with Harvey Korman in the wig and dress.) It’s the kind of stuff that could work in the short dose such a format would provide, but at an hour and a half it becomes deadly. Despite the stylistic similarity “Mommie” is about as far from “Far from Heaven” as you can get.
Busch’s script is an amalgam of so many old movies that just counting the references would probably take longer than it does to watch it. There’s “Dead Ringer” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” for starters, but also “Midnight Lace” and “Portrait in Black” and “Mommie Dearest” and “Sunset Boulevard,” among numerous others. But it doesn’t so much rearrange the bits and pieces into a new whole as simply ransack the models indiscriminately. Busch plays Angela Arden, an over-the-hill grande dame of the movies, married to veteran producer Sol Sussman (Philip Baker Hall) and with two kids, daughter Edith (Natasha Lyonne) who hates her and son Lance (Stark Sands) who’s troubled by his ambiguous sexuality. Angela also has a studly young male admirer, Tony Parker (Jason Priestley), a tennis instructor-escort for hire who turns out to be much more besides. There’s also a devoted housekeeper (Frances Conroy) of extreme religious bent, obviously in love with Sol. A murder shakes everything up, and by the close deep secrets about the family’s past are revealed.
This could be the stuff of crummy melodrama–indeed, similar stories often were–but here it’s the basis for flamboyant farce. It’s been well appointed on an obviously modest budget–the production design by Joseph B. Tintfass, sets by Robert Adams and costumes by Thomas G. Marquez, Michael Bottari and Ronald Case capture the glossy 1960s ambiance nicely–but what happens in front of the backdrops is mostly played with an exaggerated archness that would be more suited to the stage than the screen. Busch, looking rather like a chubbier John Malkovich in a dress, preens and poses as his fans will expect, but the impersonation, while fitfully amusing, is unlikely to reach far beyond them. Hall and Lyonne rant as required, and Conroy acts the cannily submissive underling well enough. But the only two performers who stand out are Priestley, whose quietly deft comic timing continues to impress, and Sands, whose boyish eagerness clicks even when the script–which lays on the sexual humor really thick–requires him to undertake some embarrassingly revealing bits of business.
Aficionados of the old movies being spoofed here may find “Die Mommie Die” amusing, and those tuned into Busch’s plays will probably consider it a hilarious hoot. But the playwright-star, it has to be said, is very much an acquired taste, and those not already in tune with his peculiar vision are likely to find this movie a tribulation. It’s the final presentation in the Sundance Film Series, and should have stayed on the specialist festival circuit, where it’s likely to have been better appreciated.