If you are going to end your film, as John Cameron Mitchell does, with a woman who has been searching for sexual release experiencing a monumental orgasm, you kind of owe your audience at least a fraction of that payoff.
But Mitchell's touchy-feely hippie picaresque about sexy New Yorkers searching for coital fulfillment is a conceptual tease -- a superficially Dionysian, flaky follow-up to the genuinely transcendent Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Even before Mitchell's threadbare story kicks into gear, viewers will be aware of Shortbus' reputation. Mitchell's film is one of those film-festival sensations like 9 Songs, The Brown Bunny or Intimacy that features graphic sex wrapped in an art-house bow. Shortbus boasts full-frontal nudity, acrobatic masturbation, real intercourse and more esoteric bodily spectacles. And that's just the first 10 minutes. Like dessert before dinner, Mitchell tends to place his goodies front and center.
Shortbus' action centers on Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who, to echo a plot device from the insipid The Oh in Ohio, has never had an orgasm despite a sympathetic partner (Raphael Barker) with a willingness to assume an array of origami positions. Across town, one of Sofia's patients, former hustler James (Paul Dawson), wrestles with his own sexual dilemma: fear of intimacay with the man Jamie (PJ DeBoy) he says he loves above all others. Then there is the deeply unhappy dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish). Severin is employed by an unpleasant "trust-fund muppet" who pays her to whip and degrade him, though he is the one who in the end holds all the power. The only kids who seem to be having any fun at all are the copulating masses at the underground club Shortbus. At the urging of James and Jamie, the club's emcee (Justin Bond, of Kiki and Herb gay cabaret fame) takes Sofia on a tour of Shortbus' sexual cornucopia with its plunge down the rabbit hole.
For Mitchell, Shortbus represents the transcendent, healing properties of a liberated, community-minded nightlife as represented by Shortbus' sex-positive clubhouse. But like so much in the reality-TV age, inward exploration is largely of the exhibitionist sort. The result is a superficial treatment of sexuality as the key to curing the world's ills. With its many references to Sept. 11, the film says these are sad, lonely days for New Yorkers, who have become creatively and sexually blocked by terrorism-era doldrums. What could be sadder, the kids in Darfur and Iraq are no doubt wondering, than Americans who can't get their freak on in these grim times? But beyond an admittedly shocking flesh carnival, Mitchell's story isn't necessarily as transgressive or humanistic as it first suggests. That idea of sex as freedom is not a new one. It's been advocated in countercultures from the 1920s Surrealists to the '60s hippies to the practitioners of '70s gay-bathhouse free love.
Making a sex-centric film is not an impossibility. Films including Eyes Wide Shut, Bitter Moon, Salo, Fat Girl, Secretary and The Dreamers have all courted controversy but also emerged as interesting films in their treatment of sex and the psychology of sex. But beware the film that proposes to go further, in what it shows of sex, than any previous film. Often a desire to transgress boundaries in what is depicted onscreen and a sense that merely showing sexual extremity is provocation enough can result in a film like Shortbus or Eros or Baise-moi, which leaves truly crucial things, such as a compelling story and characters more developed than their sexual dysfunction, in the dust.
Yes, it's hard to argue with the "make love, not war" proposition, though it's a theory, like "kill your television" and "visualize world peace," that probably works better on a bumper sticker than in story form. Mitchell's half-baked characters are more like the abstractions of political theater than real people whose problems move us. His view of a world made better via sexual harmony feels like a very American Apparel kind of "revolution." You wonder if Shortbus' plea for sexual healing extends to people outside the 212 area code and the cocoon of hipster clubbing. Or perhaps a lack of downtown street cred resigns the rest of us to the hinterlands of perpetual frigidity.