(NR) Three and a half stars

Justin (Justin Bond), the flamboyant host/father figure/mother figure/ confidant/hall monitor of Shortbus, explains that the name of the place was inspired by the short yellow busses that everybody remembers from their school days. He calls his club “a salon for the gifted and the challenged,” which fits pretty well. People chat, watch movies, play games and lounge around Shortbus, but mostly they fuck. Like bunnies, as a matter of fact, in big, surprisingly well-lit orgy rooms. Looking benignly at all the writhing bodies before him, Justin tells a newcomer, “This is just like the ’60s, only with less hope.”

That’s a dandy signature line for a film, but let me tell you a secret: The movie isn’t as jaded as the line makes it sound. Shortbus creator John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) may traffic in despair, but his creation is also warm, playful and funny.

I’ll follow up on that later, but first I should address the sex. There is a good deal of sex in Shortbus and all of it is real, performed by the brave cast with their very own body parts. You will see hetreosexual sex, homosexual sex and a scene where a guy struggles mightily to blow himself. And hoo boy, is it ever graphic.

I liked the sex, though I’ll admit to wincing for a second when the blow job guy climaxed in his own face. Regardless, I enjoy looking at physically fit naked people and watching them couple (or in some cases, triple). The sex in Shortbus is spirited, inventive and consistently interesting. It’s not particularly erotic, though. Mitchell is quoted in the New York Times as saying he wanted to make a film in which sex was not negative or dreary. He succeeded, but it would have been nice if at least one scene had actually been sexy.

Mitchell also told the Times he wanted the movie to serve as “a small act of resistance against Bush and the America we live in because it’s trying to remind people of good things about America and New York.” Huh. I suppose he accomplished his goal. Certainly, graphic depictions of sex — including gay sex — are not part of the agenda of the Bush Administration. And the New York he offers is a place where a lot of sad and/or frustrated people try to help each other out. That’s good, but didn’t we already know that?

To my eye, the film is a bit vague in the grand statements department. The sharpness of the early part of the production gets lost in the third act, which is awash with melodrama and tidy resolutions. I didn’t mind the problem areas all that much, though. Watching the sex, spending time with the players and visiting Shortbus was enough to keep me engaged.

The cast, by the way, workshopped the stories with Mitchell over a long period of time. There are three plotlines, with dandy scene transitions employing gliding shots across a beautiful animated cityscape created by digital artist John Bair. The first story involves Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), an inept sex therapist who has never had an orgasm. She fakes it with her eager-to-please husband, Rob (Raphael Barker, who deserves more screen time). The second story deals with James (Paul Dawson, the auto-fellatio guy) and his sweetly idiotic boyfriend Jamie (P.J. DeBoy), who are considering adding an additional man to their relationship. The third, and weakest, plot focuses on Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a smart-mouthed dominatrix who longs for something more.

All three storylines leave unanswered questions, but again, I didn’t mind all that much. Shortbus isn’t terribly profound, but it is consistently engaging, fun to look at and full of good will. Plus, the jokes are great, especially the one involving the abstract painting and the … wait, it’s better if you see it for yourself.


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