- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

‘Tis the season for movie geeks. “Kill Bill: Vol. I” is a smorgasbord of allusions, subreferences and visual telegraphs for fans of ‘70s kung fu flicks.

“Die, Mommie, Die,” the final installment of this fall’s four-picture Sundance Film Series, does the same for the boudoir melodramas of Hollywood’s studio era — the golden age of Susan Hayward, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth and Joan Crawford.

So, who’s the leading lady? Is it Julianne Moore, as in the Douglas Sirk homage “Far From Heaven”?

Nope. As the venerable Austin Powers growls, it’s a man, baby: It’s drag queen Charles Busch as past-her-prime singer-actress Angela Arden, a libidinous Canadian outlander who’s married to a stereotypically Jewish movie boss, Sol Sussman (Philip Baker Hall), a constipated old duck with glasses thicker than L.A. smog.

Mr. Busch adapted his stage play of the same name, while first-time director Mark Rucker and cinematographer Kelly Evans turned it into a joyous stunt.

From the pink art-deco font of the credits to the obvious blue-screen car rides, “Mommie” is a loving tribute to ‘50s and ‘60s Hollywood cinema, technical limits and all.

Interior dialogue and “a-ha” moments are spelled out in excruciating articulation; scenes are sometimes divided by clicking, curtain-like shutters; the set design bathes Mr. Busch in flattering diva light.

The fact that “she” is a man is both a fawning male homosexual homage to glamorous women and a gentle eye-poke to the quasi-deities who were that era’s movie queens, some of whom worked past the expiration dates of their appointed diva-doms.

(Mr. Rucker makes sport of Miss Crawford’s turn in the schlocky 1970 horror flick “Trog” in this movie’s climactic acid trip.)

Composer Dennis McCarthy, too, adds a deft touch of jaunty jazz and cheesy suspense music.

The plot is of deathly Greek proportions (Mr. Busch has said honestly that he was inspired by “The Oresteia”): Angela, who trails around with a tennis-pro boy toy (Jason Priestley), is miserable and bored and so kills her husband — with an arsenic-laced suppository.

(Now would be a good time to warn you that “Mommie” is full of salmonella-raw homosexual humor.)

Daddy’s girl Edith (Natasha Lyonne) and mama’s boy Lance (Stark Sands) then plot to avenge their father’s death, she out of loyalty, he out of a Freudian — oh, let’s not go there.

Throw in the saintly Bootsie Carp (Frances Conroy), the Sussmans’ maid who quotes Bible verses like they’re verbal rabbits’ feet and who knew of Angela’s plans before she carried them out, and you’ve got a summer stock full of Aeschylean machinators.

“Mommie” is sometimes flatly unshocking and unfunny in its vulgarity, but in its head-to-toe devotion to detail — notice not just the period vehicles, clothes and hairdos, but the old metal-toothed rake in the potting shed — the movie is a remarkable accomplishment.

Mr. Busch’s drag performance is flamboyant enough to please the queens of Provincetown but is actually played quite straight. There are times — split seconds, really — when you almost forget that he’s a he. He’s Angela. He’s also her twin sister, Barbara, whose grave Angela visits in the movie’s opening scene.

Confused?

Don’t be. Unlike “Kill Bill,” “Die, Mommie, Die” gives good story.

***

TITLE: “Die, Mommie, Die”

RATING: R (Strong sexual content; nudity; profanity; drug scene)

CREDITS: Directed by Mark Rucker. Produced by Dante Di Loreto, Anthony Edwards and Bill Kenwright. Written by Charles Busch, based on his stage play. Cinematography by Kelly Evans. Original music by Dennis McCarthy.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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