A tribute to Manhattan individuality as much as an affirmation of American-style life and personal freedom, “Shortbus” is a movie you want to hold close. It will most certainly pull you to its chest and deposit a loud kiss faster than you can define the term “orgasm.” From the opening sequence, which involves a man fellating himself (yes it can be done, albeit with some yoga practice and a flexible torso), to a climax scene where a woman masturbates on a beachfront bench gazing at the stars in a New York night sky, “Shortbus” crams so much sex into its 101 minutes that it becomes, in the end, decidedly unsexy. Like combining a leopard-print miniskirt and a fur halter top with snakeskin mules, there’s a helluva lot of animal here, an awful lot of exposed skin, and not all of it is pretty. Before long you’ll want to see some plant life, some veggies to go with the mound of quivering flesh you’ve been served up. But as one great line (and you will hear many in this film) goes, “The kids here have oral sex with each other all night long, and in the morning they tell you they’re strict vegans and don’t eat meat.”

The desexing of sex, however, is not a problem since “Shortbus” is about genuine intimacy and sincere familiarity. Never has movie-sex looked so guileless, so . . . nonthreatening. Director John Cameron Mitchell (of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” fame) assembled an intriguing cast of artists and virtually unknown actors (as opposed to, say, professional porn actors) and worked with them over a 2-year period. Mitchell gets personal, but at the same time the themes he expounds are universal, albeit very middle-class, urban-American. The incessant relationship/sex obsession and the trail of psycho-babble left in its wake at times border on hysteria. But such moments are neutralized with spurts of lower-East Side cynicism mostly voiced from the expertly painted lips of Manhattan sex-club owner Justin (Justin Bond, playing himself) saying things such as, “Before, I thought I’d change the world; now I’m happy if I can leave the room with some dignity.”

“Shortbus” refers to the special school buses in the United States used to transport “gifted and challenged” children (the regular, long buses carry “normal” kids). The characters featured here all seem to have rejected the regular bus seats long ago and settled in N.Y., since, after all, it’s a place where, as as one character says “people come to be forgiven for their sins.”

Director John Cameron Mitchell
Run Time 101 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Aug. 25, 2007

Justin, who queens over a club where, in one room, a sea of naked bodies gyrate on mattresses, comes off as the most serene. His customers, though bent on having a good time, are a tad less happy with the world. There’s professional dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish), who is never so lonely as when she’s cracking her whip and beating the crap out of a client. There’s Jamie (Paul Dawson), who can’t get through the day without chewing antidepressants and is making a movie about his masturbation sessions, despite being one half of a lovey dovey couple (“The Jamies”), with an actor/boyfriend who is also named Jamie (PJ DeBoy).

The Jamies feel they’re ready to “expand” their relationship by bringing more people into it, “maybe,” and go to sex therapist Sophia (Sook Yin-Lee) for advice. She herself has issues, such as her layabout husband, Rob (Raphael Barker), who jacks off to Internet porn while she earnestly tries to achieve an orgasm in the bathroom with a vibrator. And so it goes. During a session, she blurts out to the Jamies that she’s “preorgasmic,” and they ask her in all innocence, “Does that mean you’re about to have an orgasm?”

Orgasms, or lack thereof, are the prime sexual theme addressed here, often relentlessly. Sophia’s quest to experience one takes her to Justin’s club, but being a therapist locked into what she thinks is a “terrific sex-life and marriage” with Rob, she takes him with her and urges him to “get out there and experiment; but you’ll still be thinking about me!”

Mitchell’s ear for dialogue, so faultless in the social observations made by Severin or Justin and the conversations between the Jamies, falters when it comes to heterosexual relations and issues. Does a professional woman in N.Y. really have the time or inclination to obsess over sexual malfunction when she’s constantly having long, long sex sessions with Rob anyway? (The pair share a common insatiability.) On the other hand, there’s a moment when her lucidity on the subject astounds: “Sex is terrific. I love it. But sometimes I feel like (I’m) being forced to smile while having a gun pointed to my head.”

In the end, though, onanist-filmaker Jamie’s observation probably hits home hardest; depressed and lonely, he can’t articulate his feelings except to say wrenchingly, “I can’t feel anything.” If nothing else, “Shortbus” demonstrates that what really turns us on is not the act of sex but sharing the sensation of being totally alive and free with someone else. Whether with a loving partner or a stranger in a sex club, it probably doesn’t get any better than that.

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