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John Waters' latest silliness, Pecker, isn't exactly great stand up comedy.

By Joe Leydon

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  The title alone should give you some idea of the self-conscious naughtiness that awaits you in Pecker, the latest bit of campy whimsy from John Waters, director of Serial Mom, Hairspray and Cry Baby. Don't get the wrong idea: Pecker, the protagonist played with far more enthusiasm than comedic flair by Edward Furlong of Terminator 2 fame, is a fresh-faced innocent, not a porno superstar, but that's the whole point, really. Waters wants you to get the wrong idea, and wholeheartedly embrace it, so he can have a great deal of fun by having other characters in the movie address the character by name, preferably at the top of their lungs.

Pecker, an amateur photographer who works as a sandwich-shop short-order cook in his working-class Baltimore neighborhood, earned his nickname by being a notoriously picky eater during his childhood. Now 18, Pecker takes grainy, often unfocused snapshots of friends, family members, total strangers - and, occasionally, copulating rodents. His girlfriend, Shelley (Christina Ricci), the workaholic operator of the Spin 'n Grin laundromat, marvels at Pecker's aesthetic sensibility: "You see art when there's nothing there." Rorey (Lili Taylor), a visiting New Yorker just happens to be an art dealer for a chic New York gallery, is even more impressed by Pecker's photos. When she happens upon Pecker's debut exhibition - which Pecker unveils at the sandwich shop - Rorey whips out her checkbook, purchases a Pecker original, and arranges for our hero to have a high-profile show in Manhattan. Not surprisingly, complications arise.

Is Pecker in bad taste? Of course. (Remember, this is a movie from the guy who gave us Pink Flamingos, the comedy that offered dog excrement as a blue-plate special.) But is it funny? Only sporadically. Waters has successfully bamboozled his admirers into accepting his claim that his movies are affectionately goofy homages to the folks he knew and loved while growing up absurd in Baltimore. But Pecker is so condescendingly mocking - and, worse, so repetitious - that Waters' hectoring attitude is obvious and tedious. A little bit of this fey foolishness goes a long way. Nearly 90 minutes of it is too much of a not-so-good thing.

Consider, if you will, Waters' depiction of a nuclear family that remains blissfully unaware of its own dysfunctions. Pecker's father (Mark Joy) is justifiably afraid that his neighborhood bar will lose customers to a place across the street, a lesbian strip club where, in violation of Maryland law, pubic hairs are unveiled in close proximity to liquor sales. Pecker's mother (Mary Kay Place) is a cheerily fashion-conscious do-gooder who operates a low-rent thrift shop where grateful customers are heard to exclaim: "You always make us homeless people feel good about ourselves!" Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey), Pecker's kid sister, is a sugar addict who literally foams at the mouth when she feeds her addiction. Tina (an almost unrecognizable Martha Plimpton), Pecker's older sister, is the enthusiastic mistress of ceremonies at the Fudge Palace, where she repeatedly, but none too strenuously, warns the male clientele to maintain a discreet distance from the go-go boys on stage.

And then there's Memama (Jean Schertler), Pecker's grandmother, who claims to communicate with her statue of the Virgin Mary. That Memama does most of the talking isn't a major issue until Pecker is a high-profile, media-magnified celebrity.

To give him credit, Waters isn't appreciably kinder, or more subtle, when it comes to poking fun at the Manhattanites who lionize Pecker as the next big thing. (Chief among the trendy New Yorkers: Patricia Hearst - yes, that Patricia Hearst - as a prominent culture maven.) Even so, Pecker comes across as a freak show in which the ringmaster has little regard for his star attractions.

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