Doll Parts

Jennifer Tilly fakes it so real, she's beyond fake

Jennifer Tilly is the patron saint of put-upon nail-salon workers, day-shift strippers, car-show hostesses, and phone-sex artists. In short: Anywhere you find American Womankind working long hours for short pay--a smidgen of showbiz glam crumbling on the horizon, the hint of Sexual Hypnosis turning a long shot into a maybe--you find Jennifer Tilly. Hell, not since Rosalind Russell took her second-banana eyebrow lifts to the big time has an American actress made her own mix of weary experience and powerlessness into a brand name.

The apotheosis of Tilly comes in Michael Radford's silly but extremely entertaining Dancing at the Blue Iguana, in which her nervous exotic dancer sits in a reproductive health clinic, lighting and relighting a cigarette that's repeatedly blown out by a bourgeois mom who insists that the cig is "bad for your baby." Eventually (the movie's dialogue is all improvised, I should say), Tilly has her day in court. "I'm here ta have an abortion, lady! Ya think we're all here ta have perky little happy babies like you? Try again, Hon! And if ya try ta blow that cigarette out again, I'm gonna beat yer ass ta the floor!" (Note to dejected right-to-choosers: Rent Dancing at the Blue Iguana for guaranteed catharsis.)

Tilly works a lot, though not in things you're likely to see, which is all the more reason to applaud the multiplex debut of the sensationally enjoyable Seed of Chucky. The fifth entry in the Child's Play series, which has gone from horror-with-a-wink to high camp in the Who Slew Auntie Roo? style, Seed gives Tilly two magnificent characters to play. The first, Tiffany, is a killer doll--a mass-murdering miniature mannequin who coos at her newfound doll child in the hoarsely maternal tones of Marge Simpson. This doll-kid shows up on the doorstep of Tiffany and her spouse, the redheaded maniac doll Chucky (voiced by the great Brad Dourif, best known before his Chucky phase as the sensitive youth in Cuckoo's Nest and Wise Blood).

Puppet regime: 'Seed of Chucky'
Rogue Pictures
Puppet regime: 'Seed of Chucky'

Tiffany is unsure of whether her automaton spawn ought to be a boy or a girl--he isn't anatomically correct, after all--and of how to get help for her addiction to bloodshed. Meanwhile, Tilly plays another, much taller killer doll named Jennifer Tilly(!)--a cherry Popsicle of an actress who's reduced to fellating Redman for the role of the Virgin Mary in the rapper's new Passion of the Christ rip-off. (The notion of the wriggly Tilly as the Holy Mother is somehow so wrongly right it's kind of hot.) Needless to say, it's a short distance from Tilly's whispered promise to dial up Gina Gershon for a Redman three-way to a full-on maniac-doll bloodbath.

Stuffed with movie-buff in-jokes, Seed of Chucky has the drunkenly swaggering, who-gives-a-fuck? tone of the old-broad horror flicks that followed What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? In one superbly perverse moment of franchise-envy, writer-director Don Mancini has Chucky hack down a bathroom door with an ax, put his face through the hole, waggle his eyebrows Nicholson style, then admit, "I really don't know what to say." As for Tilly, this thoroughly ridiculous material has somehow given her license to go for broke as a camp diva and to discover a raw kind of emotion she's not afforded in other, more respectable movies. The scene in which Tiffany gets on the phone with a Recovery Hotline volunteer, who advises her not to beat herself up over "one little slip," is astonishing for how Tilly twists the volunteer's advice into permission to commit murder--with her voice, that is, and the static face of a puppet.

To American filmmakers, I say this: Whether or not you like horror, Seed of Chucky is required viewing. Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore hardly own the patent on psychic pain; indeed, as we stare down four more years of the Big Rollback, we have a new spokeswoman for our daily disappointments. A-list princesses of the '90s had better move over: This is Jen's moment.

 
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