Friday, January 25, 2008

A dark comedy with too much bite

Summary: Building his story around the vagina dentata myth -- that's a vagina with teeth for those unschooled in the classics -- director Mitchell Lichtenstein (son of artist Roy Lichtenstein) generates some laughs. But in the end, his mixture of black comedy, feminist fable and shock cinema seems too intent on pushing the cinematic envelope. For most men, the movie will result in a one-word review, "Ouch!"

Dawn (the sweet-faced Jane Weixler) lives in a suburban home that's not too far from a couple of nuclear reactors we see huffing and puffing in the background of several shots. Dawn shares her home with her mother and stepfather (Vivienne Benesch and Lenny von Dohlen) and her punked-out stepbrother (John Hensley). I guess we're supposed to think that Dawn's problem -- a toothy vagina that bites the unwary -- resulted from a mutation caused by excessive exposure to radiation.

In this trip to suburbia, Hensley's Brad stands as the clearest example of a jerk -- not only in this film but in any you happen to stumble upon. He's a study in misogyny, a crude lout who seldom leaves the room where he keeps a vicious dog in a cage and occasionally lures a woman for bruising sexual encounters.

Lichtenstein controls the film's tone, but probably takes aim at too many targets. He begins with satirical look at the kind of young people who are pushed into taking vows of chastity, flirts with horror-movie tropes and then goes for shock, mostly in the form of shots of spurting blood and severed ... well... you know.

Weixlers, who's pretty much in every scene, is a real find, a young woman with a face Boticelli might have painted and a sense of growing alarm about her own brutal capacities.

The movie eventually struggles to become a contemporary fable about a woman who learns to accept and even embrace her sexual powers, but it's held back by what I view as eagerness to distinguish itself from the rest of the indie pack. "Teeth" boasts its share of mordant humor, but it's not quite able to disguise its true identity: It's a gimmick movie for people who wouldn't ordinarily go to see one.

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