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Polyester (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on July 5, 2014

Poor, poor Francine Fishpaw (Divine).  Her husband Elmer (David Samson) is an uncaring brute whose porno theater brings screaming protesters to their yard.  Her daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) is a delinquent who runs around with no-good Bo-Bo (Stiv Bators).  Her son Dexter (Ken King) is a troubled youth whose bizarre foot fetish is about to make scandalous headlines.  And her mother (Joni Ruth White) has nothing but contempt for her and steals from her pocketbook.  Francine’s only ally in the world is Cuddles (Edith Massey), a not-entirely-there former maid who inherited big bucks and is about to make her social debut.  When Elmer runs off with his kinky secretary (Mink Stole) and her son gets arrested and her daughter wants an abortion, Francine spirals into alcoholism.  Will she find a happy new life with the dashing Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter)… or more humiliation?

Boy, was this disappointing.  In my memory, it was John Waters’s finest pre-Hairspray film and as I went through my Waters revisits, I thought I was saving the best for last.  Not so.  But before this review gets too negative, I should list some of the positives.  There’s a lot of funny stuff here.  In what is basically a take on 50’s melodrama, Divine’s over-the-top reactions are priceless.  Garlington — in her only credited performance — is hilarious with her absurd gyrating.  She gets one of my favorite lines in any Waters film: “For a quarter, I will!” (not as funny written out, but her delivery is a riot… also: “I never wanted to use macramé to kill!”).  Massey is a delight as always, really the whole cast is pretty enjoyable.  And the Odorama idea is a hoot.

So it’s not certainly a total loss, there are laughs to be had.  But… well, it’s kind of a drag a lot of the time.  Waters seems to be trying for something like a Mel Brooks sort of comedy, which just can’t hold its own against what a bummer the story is.  Looking at his best movies — Desperate Living, Female Trouble and Hairspray — I realize these are all about strong, outsider women fighting against adversity.  Granted, sometimes the women are pretty nasty characters themselves, but there’s a clear affection for them.  Here we’re just watching Francine get pummeled by all the awful people in her life, over and over and over again.  She’s not a strong woman, she’s a doormat.  This is, of course, right in line with the 50’s melodrama angle, the weepies about women going through one hardship after another.  But that doesn’t lend itself well to comedic interpretation.  It’s just too much.  The movie is funny in the details but wears you down on the whole.  You never feel like Waters is on Francine’s side.

It would be a seven-year gap before Waters returned to directing, somehow delivering his best film after the break.  Perhaps he needed some distance from the “trash” of his early career to find his heart again.  In this film, you can see him starting to move a little more towards the mainstream, but the formula isn’t there yet.  Rating: Good (70)


2 Responses to “Polyester (rewatch)”

  1. mountanto said

    My thoughts exactly. There’s fine line between black comedy and cruel comedy, and I think this one went just on the wrong side of it.

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