The obvious advantage to John Cameron Mitchell's second film, Shortbus, is that many people will see it, and continue to talk about it, because of the sex. Frustrated by what he interpreted as a "lack of respect" toward sex in American cinema, Mitchell—who, five years ago, directed Hedwig and the Angry Inch—has filmed graphic, well-lit, actual sex scenes, but avoided creating pornography. Indeed, any comparison to porn is immediately made moot upon viewing. As Mitchell points out, "Pornography is meant to be a turn on. I don't think anyone is going to be turned on by the sex in this film." He's right—it's not hot. But it's hardly probable that anyone as savvy as Mitchell would be so naïve as to be surprised that his brazen use of sex—which is in some ways a landmark in film history—is garnering the most attention, and is going to get people in the theater seats. Well played, Mitchell.
But the film's best moments aren't the most physical. The characters' common ground is a fictional Manhattan sex salon run by Justin Bond (of Kiki & Herb), and the scenes here are Shortbus' most vibrant. Bond plays host to a sex therapist who can't orgasm (Sook-Yin Lee), a depressed man in a seemingly ideal relationship (Paul Dawson), a lonely dominatrix (Lindsay Beamish), and a host of other deviants in a colorful respite from the film's primary obsession—that being the exhaustive emotional tensions of its characters. It's in the sex salon scenes that we get the glamour fix we expect from the man who brought us Hedwig, as freaks and hipster celebrities revel in the idealized club, where sex collides with art and music, and much is made of freedom and experimentation. But even at its warmest, Shortbus is oddly standoffish—just as its take on sex is to think about it too hard, paralyzing it from the waist down.