Early on in this erotic hot button of a movie, a dude contorts his body so he can suck himself off. It’s all there, including the jizz. Before you write off Shortbus as the Jackass of porn, you should know that the movie is the id child of John Cameron Mitchell, the formidably talented creator, director and star of 2001’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The sex is real in Shortbus, requiring the actors to give their all, but the film’s concerns go way beyond exhibitionism. In examining the confluence of flesh and spirit, Mitchell and the actors — they helped him write the script — want to show what sex really says about us, good and bad. It’s a grand ambition, only partially realized. But watching Mitchell try makes for an exhilarating trip.
Shortbus is a New York underground salon, where orgies and sex talk redefine carnal knowledge. It’s a place where Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who’s never reached orgasm with her husband, Rob (Raphael Barker), can discuss her problem with Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix. Then there’s James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy), who bring in a third guy, Ceth (Jay Brannan), to spice up their five-year relationship. And I haven’t mentioned Caleb (Peter Stickles), the voyeur who photographs James from the apartment across the street.
Miitchell uses everything from 3-D animation to what must be the kinkiest version ever of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to catch us up in the vortex of his obsessions. That he scores as many points as he does is quite a feat, given the erratic quality of the acting and the fact that getting too close to what gets you off can be a downer. By taking sex out of the Hollywood safe zone and exposing it to therapy-speak, Mitchell may be inadvertently killing its mystery. Where’s the pleasure in that? But if there is such a thing as hard-core with a soft heart, this is it.