After making a movie about every decade he has lived in, Waters wanted to get back to contemporary humor with a story that took place in the “real” world. The result was Serial Mom, an accessible satire of suburban Baltimore.
Waters builds into Serial Mom the affection audiences felt for TV shows like “Leave It To Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet”, encouraging them to fantasize what the shows' characters might really be like–the movie is as much a satire of TV sitcoms as an ode to them.
Juxtaposing bloody murders with Beaver backgrounds, this movie reflects a compromise between the early gross-outs and a new, cleaner look. But in courting mainstream audiences, which worked in Hairspray but failed in
Cry-Baby, Waters softens his jabs and perhaps plays it too safe.
Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner), a middle-class housewife fiercely devoted to her family, is a Supermom in the mold of June Cleaver and Donna Reed. Thriving at her chores, she cooks meat loafs, keeps the house spic-n-span, goes to PTA meetings. Happily married to a meek dentist (Sam Waterston), she is ultra-sensitive to her children's growing pains.
Misty (Ricky Lake) is in college, but she is more interested in boys than in studies. High-school senior Chip (Matthew Lillard) works at a local videostore, where he cultivates an insatiable appetite for horror flicks–the kind Waters adores. Beverly can't tolerate any criticism of her family. When a teacher recommends therapy for her son, when her daughter is stood up by a beau, when a neighbor is not recycling, she takes the kind of action that's more cleaver than Beaver.
Serial Mom is not as dark or macabre as the deliciously nasty Parents (1989), a horror comedy set in the l950s, in which Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt play conformist parents with only one flaw: cannibalism.
With his move toward the mainstream, Waters began to lose the subversive sensibility that marked his underground films. As he revealingly disclosed: “In the old days, I wanted to make people nervous about what they were laughing at. In Serial Mom, there's a stream of good hearty laughs, but the nervousness is missing from the humor.” The least original sequences deal with the media coverage of Beverly's trial and how the family exploits the case via agents, book rights and TV movies.
Serial Mom represents a compromise between the outrageousness of the early work and the lighter tone of the later one. With more of an edge than Hairspray or Cry Baby, Waters perceives it as “back to the R-rated territory of his earlier work. It has the same sense of humor, but it's filtered through the showcase of a big-budget Hollywood movie. For him, this is an even more subversive act, because, the film was getting into neighborhoods that never let his movies in before.
For the first time in his career, Waters works with a star of the caliber of Kathleen Turner, who played her role with gusto. Waters said he wanted people to like Turner as a heroine, not villainess, to the point where they wouldn't mind how many she killed. Most critics thought Waters showed too much restraint, perhaps because of the higher budget and presence of a major star.