Written & Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell
Shortbus opens with a New York City maquette at once crude and charming, with its conspicuously phallic skyscrapers, that conveys a clear message to the audience—the film you are about to see is not set in New York, but in “New York”. With its bouncy comedy, melodramatic histrionics and stylized backdrops, Shortbus feels like it ought to be a musical, and yet its inhabitants never break into song. (The only exception might be the occasional singing that takes place at the eponymous nightclub that is the film's central setting.) The impression is further buttressed by the opening sequence, which introduces its leads by cutting back and forth between them like the "Quintet" in West Side Story; instead of innocuously singing, however, the characters are wantonly fucking.
Shortbus' claim to fame is that, rather than just the usual musical number, it features a lot of actual sex; during the introduction we’re treated to a formidable attempt at autofellatio, a spiky-haired dominatrix wiping down a large pink dildo as she whips a hipster, and a couple banging out an atonal tune on the piano as they bang one another. Though, by the film’s end, the sex has faded from the foreground, its inclusion at all still comes across as a cheap cry for attention; not only that, Mitchell tries to use sex as a conduit for discovering emotional depth in the characters and the story that simply isn’t there.
Like Mutual Appreciation—which was at least aesthetically appealing—Shortbus is another whiny movie about transplanted, solipsistic New Yorkers, the sort that move here to work on their art (sigh), get laid, and drive up rents. In some ways, it also bears similarity to Woody Allen's Manhattan, only absent all charm, wit, and intelligence. (But plus graphic sex!)
The story revolves around a group of characters whose common connection is a Brooklyn sex-club called "Shortbus", a super sexparty where there’s always an orgy going down right around the corner. “It’s like the ‘60s,” Shortbus’ androgynous, Joel-Grey-reminiscent MC (Justin Bond) remarks, “only with a lot less hope.” There’s an insufferable sex therapist, Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), who can’t have an orgasm; James and Jamie (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy, respectively), a couple reluctantly looking for other lovers who awkwardly wind up welcoming the adorable Ceth (Jay Brannan) into their relationship; and a dominatrix named Severin (get it? You know, “Venus in Furs”?), played by Lindsay Beamish, who just wants to settle down into a normal life.
Shortbus is far more bearable when the obnoxious and superunlikable Lee is off-screen, but it's always rather rib-nudgingly overbearing, like an inappropriate uncle telling dirty jokes at Easter, not least of all in a scene in which Sofia sticks a remote-controlled, vibrating egg into her vagina. It’s a total miss that goes on way too long and never provokes a laugh, but then again the self-satisfied film is rarely ever actually funny. “Someone came on your cat,” a partygoer tells Justin Bond; when everyone giggles, he replies, “It’s not funny"—you could say that again; ready for this?—"oh why can’t they leave my pussy alone?”
The most notorious scene involves a homosexual ménage-a-trois during which an impromptu performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” erupts, with Jamie screaming the anthem into Ceth’s ass and Ceth gripping James’ penis like a microphone. (It's a glorious statement of American freedom, but at the same time it also points out that a total lack of artistic restrictions, i.e. self-censorship at the very least, can often yield self-indulgent balderdash like the very film we're watching. If anything, Shortbus functions, unintentionally in light of its absolute failure, as an indictment of unmitigated liberty.)
Across the way, watching from an open window, is Caleb (Peter Stickles), a camera-toting voyeur whose incredulous, wide-eyed stare that registers both repulsion and attraction makes him a perfect stand-in for audience and director alike. The writer-director eventually, and audaciously, allows himself, through Caleb, to enter the narrative in order to literally save a character's life, and by the end he is lucky enough to have buddied-up with Ceth, by far the cutest boy at Shortbus.
You can't blame Mitchell for giving himself that last one, but you can blame him (because he is, ultimately, wholly responsible) for this obnoxiously overwrought film. Shortbus dares to confront sexuality frankly and honestly, but that doesn’t make it any less sensationalistic. I get it, Americans (and the MPAA) are repressed, but trying to point that out in a goofy, smug, caricatural film won’t teach anyone anything, only reaffirm what they already suspect: New York City is chockablock with superfags and sinners.
Let me be clear: Shortbus neither shocks nor offends me with its sexual candor, but rather bores and irks me with how rebellious it superciliously sees itself. Everything is neatly summed-up, for me, in a closet, in a conversation between James and Severin during a Seven-Minutes-in-Heaven that's more like a brief stay in purgatorical limbo:
“Hey, you’re an artist,” James points-out to the Polaroid-toting Severin.
“Yeah," she humbly replies, "I suck.”
“Yeah, me too,” aspiring filmmaker James says with a laugh.
Yeah, you too, John Cameron Mitchell.