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OK. Let's forget about sexually explicit content for a moment. You've got 400 other reviews you can read about the sex in.
Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: John Cameron Mitchell is a very good filmmaker. Hedwig And The Angry Inch was very well made, and Shortbus is very well made. This is why I gave this movie 6 stars - it was enjoyable to watch on the level of very well-made cinema. He's clearly done his homework - this film reeks of "best student in his film school class". Despite how that sounds, I mean it in a good way. The actors, including the 'local color' cast to play themselves, also give very good performances all around.
Some of the characters and situations in Shortbus do have a few nice subtle touches, but then, all to often, it is ruined by having them go and behave in contrived and unrealistic ways that are practically Hollywood clichés. Situations alternate between characters making themselves emotionally vulnerable and revealing deep personal thoughts and secrets in front of total strangers - a few times I was surprised the words "this is a deep movie" didn't just flash across the screen in case anybody missed the point - and people flying off the handle and making unrealistically insensitive statements to each other (which the other person then completely overreacts to, and both begin screaming, all for the apparent purpose of creating "drama".) There is no subtlety or ambiguity anywhere in the mix. Everything is clearly spelled out for the viewer in broad day-glo strokes. It reeks of "Look at us! We're 'complex' characters" instead of ringing true-to-life. It feels like watching a grown-up, tattooed version of "Beverly Hills 90210". With excellent cinematography.
What I want to know is, in a movie where they went so far as to use real sex for veracity, didn't they put any work into having the situations or characters be anything like true-to-life? Are we to believe that a relationship counselor would get so worked up as to physically slap a client over his eagerness to have had a therapeutic "epiphany", and then confide in him that she's never had an orgasm? Even worse, are we expected to believe the scene where a remotely-controlled vibrator concealed in her crotch repeatedly fires at the worst possible moment, forcing her to involuntarily beat the tar out of somebody? Let alone that the husband who claimed to care so much about her orgasm would "misplace" the remote by leaving it in his back pocket during a sex party? Or that someone would then mistake it (a pink remote labeled "trapped hummingbird" and "buzzing bee") for a TV remote, inadvertently triggering the beating? If this all had been meant as comedy and played for laughs, in a slapstick film, it might have worked. As it is, it was all just far-fetched and stupid, saved from being embarrassingly bad only by the actors' considerable skills. Is this what the audiences at Cannes appreciate? The "concealed vibrator" scene was the single worst case, but this sort of contrived situation is present to one degree or another throughout the whole film. People share secrets, people argue. The characters develop, but in many cases no reasons or motivations are presented for them doing so - it just sort of happens, to drive the story along. People have hangups for no reason we can tell, then they overcome them arbitrarily, also for no reason we can tell, other than that the picture needs an ending. I was not surprised at all to learn the actors were allowed to participate in the writing process. Beneath the excellent production and performances, something very amateurish seemed to be lurking at this well-made movie's core.
Essentially, Shortbus is a fairy tale about sex, and should be taken as such. Those who are too old for princes, pots of gold and unicorns may enjoy the sex toys, orgasms and freak-folk performers that fill in for them here, and on that level, it's an enjoyable film, if you're not the sort of person likely to be offended by the very explicit content.
But I do hope that someday someone supplies John Cameron Mitchell with source material that rises to the level of his very considerable skills as a filmmaker.