Our eyes are on Texas

“Sordid Lives” plumbs the depths of the Lone Star State

Gabriel Shapiro

Maybe Texas really is as different as folks say. Our president gets a wistful, far-off look in his eyes when he talks about his dear “home” state (George W. Bush was actually born on the lonesome rangelands of New Haven, Conn.) Now, those of us in the other 49 states can finally evaluate the evidence of Texas’ strange appeal. “Sordid Lives” is a bizarre collection of subplots that comprise a larger story set somewhere in the Lone Star State involving an ensemble of eccentric and over-the-top characters from a cruel, alcoholic, nymphomaniac shrink to a Tammy Wynette-obsessed, institutionalized transvestite to a gaggle of chain-smoking, pill-popping, promiscuous trailer park-dwelling women.

In fact, there are so many wild subplots going on that at times it is a bit confusing, but the main thing that ties these characters together and puts them in the place we find them in is the death of the mother of several of the women in the story. Everyone is either family or a neighbor, and they are all involved deeply in each other’s lives.

Written first as a play and later adapted for the screen and directed by Del Shores, this is a semi-autobiographical work, and that alone is truly frightening. If the kernels of truth in these events are even half as zany as they wind up being in the movie, he must have had a crazy life so far.

Shores’ discussion of homosexuality, especially the craziness of coming out to people who already know you’re gay, is the most consistently interesting part of the movie. The narrative centers on Ty (played by Kirk Geiger) and his reunion with his family, something he has dreaded since moving to Los Angeles.

The larger theme of accepting yourself as you are and letting others come to terms with it is dealt with well, and there is a lot of humor derived from watching the psychiatrist try to badger the homosexuality out of her patient to the point of insisting he have intercourse with her while he protests, saying he’s about to be ill.

There are several problems with being gay in the community Shores depicts, but their complexity is never fully fleshed out. The characters with the strongest opposition to homosexuality, the aforementioned psychiatrist working with the institutionalized transvestite and the gay-bashing redneck who, spurred by guilt for having beaten that same transvestite up, springs him from the mental institution, have somewhat contrived and almost silly reasons behind their homobphobia. The changes of heart that do occur happen so quickly and with such poorly conveyed motivation that they ring somewhat false. Despite its prominent role in the story, there isn’t any real discussion of homophobia so it ends up being essentially a plot device.

There is some commentary on the forces that keep people from self-acceptance, including some dealing with the Southern Baptist Church’s intransigence on homosexuality. This includes dialogue taken directly from an interview Shores gave, which included his remark on leaving the church, which he summed up by saying “how do you embrace something that doesn’t embrace you?”

This movie is funny, occasionally touching and at the very least interesting, but it’s also a bit sloppy. When resolution comes for the characters in their various states of disarray, it comes too fast and is cheaply gotten. It is hard to believe Ty’s mother’s revelation that she has in fact known her son is gay and is fine with it; she appears in the credits holding a sign “proud parent of a gay son” or something to that effect that looks like it’s straight out of the PFLAG section of a pride march, which is something that for the majority of the movie this character would not have gone near.

The big problem is that the movie is so fragmentary. The satire doesn’t ever fully work because the melodramatic “serious” scenes, such as Ty’s ex-girlfriend’s explanation of platonic love and the brief discussion of AIDS, are just as over-the-top as the parodies of “white trash” life and “Texas-ness,” as it were. It is impossible to take the characters seriously enough to allow them to comment on real substantial issues beyond perhaps as some kind of setup for the next humorous scene. The story never takes what it seems to really want: a second to stop and contemplate itself.

Even with that said, the laughs in “Sordid Lives” make it a good time and a zany romp.

“Sordid Lives” is showing at the Bell Auditorium nightly at 7:15 through March 13. Also showing at 5:15 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.