The title refers to a club in New York where anything goes, and by anything I mean…well, I’ll give you three guesses. John Cameron Mitchell’s very raw human drama has been the recipient of much controversy because the CBC initially refused to support Definitely…Not the Opera host Sook-Yin Lee starring in it because of the director’s use of un-simulated sex. Yes, that is to say the sex heavily depicted in this film was actual sex. Yea, though this isn’t porn, Mitchell’s obviously seeing how close he can get as he tells a serious dramatic tale involving the lives of several Manhattan dwellers all looking for something more in their lives.
Lee plays Sophie, a couples’ therapist who is pre-orgasmic, as in someone who hasn’t had one yet, and it’s recently begun to put a strain on her relationship with husband Rob (Raphael Barker). Sophie is counseling a gay couple James and Jamie (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy); James, a former male prostitute, has suggested that he and Jamie open their relationship to a third partner. On a trip to Shortbus with Jamie and James, Sophie meets Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix that promises to help Sophia find her orgasm if Sophia helps her find a way to make some kind of human connection.
Shortbus is kind of half great and half plodding. A lot of the emotional ground in the film has been covered in better films without the kind of weight of pretension that Mitchell infuses into his narrative. The idea of desperate strangers finding a common destiny has been done before, as has many of the predicaments that the characters find themselves in. About the only thing that Mitchell does different is the sex, which is hardly as titillating as it may sound, or as controversial. It sort of reminded me of that whole thing with Brokeback Mountain and how apparently a great many people were upset by that film’s “raw” depiction of gay sex. Seeing it for yourself, depending on your degree of prudishness, it’s much ado about nothing.
Therein lies the key to this movie, I think; it does sort of test one’s liberalism and open-mindedness: how much is too much to show on screen and so forth. Seeing this movie with a crowd of people may feel odd at first but after the initial shock, Mitchell settles into to telling a typical relationship dramedy, which is also quite funny and charming. This is Shortbus’ saving grace: the characters may feel familiar, the inclusion of explicit sex may be partially exploitative, but the film’s got heart and that’s what counts.