The extremely explicit sex sequences in this new film by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) will certainly attract lots of attention, much of it of the shocked variety. Indeed, the amount of nudity and servicing, of both the self and the mutual varieties, would put many porno movies to shame. What might escape notice amidst the resultant controversy is how rankly sentimental “Shortbus” is. Its message, when all is said and done, is that intercourse–in the particular as well as the general senses of the term–is the solution to human misery. What it proclaims, through a metaphor about blackouts in the city, is a variant of the divine injunction from Genesis–not “Let there be light!” but “Let there be love!” Which, in the vocabulary of this movie, means “Let there be sex!” Not terribly profound.
Mitchell’s script centers on two troubled couples and the people that circle around them. One is a gay pair, consisting of Jamie (PJ DeBoy), a former kid TV star, and James (Paul Dawson), an erstwhile hustler who’s obviously suffering some sort of depression after five years’ of monogamy. The other is heterosexual, involving Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), the therapist James and Jamie visit for advice about “opening up” their relationship to other partners, but who has problems of her own: she’s only been pretending to have orgasms when bedding her husband Rob (Raphael Baker). When the guys find that out, they invite her to the titular club, a free-wheeling sex-experimentation party run by drag queen Justin Bond, playing himself. Despite a sort of one step forward, two steps back dance, everybody finds what they need there. The boys bump into a handsome model, Ceth (Jay Brannan), who makes them a threesome, while Sofia encounters Severin (Lindsay Beamish), an artist earning a living as a dominatrix to preppy Jesse (Adam Hardman, presumably a pseudonym), with whom she develops an emotional bond, though inevitably the punkish girl has emotional problems of her own. And there’s another character, shuffling around the edges at first, who plays a very important role in the end: Caleb (Peter Stickles), a voyeur who’s been spying on James and Jamie from a nearby building and become obsessed with them.
The parts of “Shortbus” that work best are the more lighthearted, off-the-cuff ones. Even the explicit sex sequences, after one gets over the initial astonishment at Dawson’s first graphic exhibition (which is never really matched), become increasingly easy to take. The problem is that the film has things to say, and they turn out to be the same old tired cliches that have always populated romantic movies, even if they’re dressed up in unusual gender trappings. Beneath all the calculated edginess lurks the heart of a soap opera, and not just a soap opera, but one that ends with the equivalent of a “We Are the World” sing-along. A feel-good, uplifting sexual daisy-chain is something you don’t see on screen everyday. Thank goodness.
As you might expect, the cast is as notable for other things as for their acting ability, but they all get by, and from the technical perspective Mitchell and his crew provide a good background for the action. But though the prudish should definitely steer clear, what ultimately derails “Shortbus” is that it’s actually far less daring than it pretends to be.