G.W. Nethercott (Beau Bridges), a hayseed despondent because he feels responsible for the death of his mistress (she tripped in a darkened hotel room over the prosthetic legs he’d plopped on the floor), remarks not far into Del Shores’ filmization of his own play, “I’m in hell.” Before long, the few viewers unlucky enough to stumble into this coarse, ham-fisted farce will sympathize with his sentiment. About ninety minutes later, a drunken Nethercott opines that “Life is a pile of [expletive deleted].” By then members of the audience will think that the description fits the movie, too; and they’re likely to wish they’d had access to the hooch that’s fried poor G.W.’s brain into semi-consciousness. “Sordid Lives” would certainly be more palatable if one’s senses were impaired. Watching it cold sober is painful indeed.
That’s too bad, given that the movie’s heart is in the right place. It’s all about tolerance and accepting people, as the last song offered by Olivia Newton-John puts it, as they are. This is a noble message; it’s a pity it’s delivered in so shrill and gruesomely “wacky” a form. “Sordid Lives” wants to be a screwball comedy of sorts, but it only convinces us that its makers must have had a screw loose.
The setting of the picture is a small town in Texas where virtually all the characters are grotesques, obnoxious rednecks who spend most of their time shrieking and snarling at one another in accents so thick that they make “L’il Abner” appear subtle. Everything has been turned into a tailspin by the death of Peggy, a widow who seems to have had a rather active sex life; we’ll learn later that she enjoyed a liaison with songstress Bitsy Mae Harling (Newton-John), but the big scandal is that she died in a compromising situation with G.W., whose furious wife Noleta (Delta Burke) is the next-door neighbor of Peggy’s sister Sissy (Beth Grant) and a close friend of one of the dead woman’s daughters, LaVonda (Ann Walker). LaVonda is feuding with her sibling Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia) over their mother’s burial arrangements, much to the long-suffering Sissy’s embarrassment. Meanwhile LaVonda and Latrelle’s brother Brother Boy (Leslie Jordan), who’s been incarcerated in a “de-homosexualizing” program for more than two decades (and who enjoys dressing up as Tammy Wynette), is being harangued by his long-time psychiatrist Dr. Bolinger (Rosemary Alexander) to abandon his winsome ways. Brother Boy’s hospitalization was initiated as a result of an approach he made toward his best friend Wardell (Newell Alexander), who’s now the bartender at the joint where Bitsy Mae sings and G.W. is attempting to drown his sorrows. Before things are over, Noleta and LaVonda will have invaded the saloon in a feminist fury and forced G.W., Wardell and the latter’s simpleton brother Odell (Earl H. Bullock) to debase themselves; Wardell will break Brother Boy out of the lockup to attend his mother’s funeral; and Latrelle’s son Ty (Kirk Geiger), an actor who’s in L.A. struggling with a decision to come out, will overcome his fears about returning home and admitting his sexual preferences to his mother. Everyone gathers in church for a big, event-filled finale that’s meant to be hysterical but comes across as merely crude and forced.
It’s difficult to say what’s more embarrassing about “Sordid Lives”–the cartoonish, insulting caricatures or the grossness (virtually all the male performers are compelled to strip down to very little clothing, and in Bridges’ case the sight of his body hair is enough to put you off your popcorn). Most of the players–Bedelia, Johnson, Walker, and Rosemary Alexander are the most notable examples–overplay dreadfully; others–like Bridges, Bullock and Newell Alexander–seem to be barely conscious. Newton-John overdoes the hard-bitten stuff as Bitsy Mae, but though Grant is very broad as Sissy, she has a natural charm that even the material can’t entirely smother. The only member of the cast who comes through pretty much unscathed is Geiger. In his early sequences, in which Ty reveals his circumstances to an unseen therapist, he gives surprising shading to dialogue that’s at best workmanlike, and he remains likable not only in a difficult scene with an ex-girlfriend (Sarah Hunley) but in his final confrontation with Bedelia. Geiger’s soft-spoken, genial presence is a welcome oasis in a desert of overstatement.
Ultimately the central problem with “Sordid Lives” is that, though it means well, its treatment of the characters lacks the affectionate quality that might make them individuals you want to spend a couple of hours with. “King of the Hill,” after all, focuses on equally stereotypical Texans, but does so with wit and even a sense of compassion; Shores’ piece resembles a version of Mike Judge’s show, but one that’s high on speed and without any redeeming subtlety. Cruelly obvious, overbearing and contemptuous of both its characters and its audience, it will make you groan rather than laugh.