Pornography is an accepted way of life today, and sex is only a click away. So a new movie about how an innocent teenager drifts into the porn industry may seem relevant, but hardly shocking. Still, I often wonder about these moaning, undulating, lip-licking porno stars and where they came from. Who are they? Where do they go at night? What do they do when they’re not in front of a camera? Do they sleep on real Beautyrest springs, or in a box beneath a drawbridge? About Cherry, directed by Stephen Elliott and co-scripted with a former porn star called Lorelei Lee (not the one from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), is about just such a girl. She calls herself Cherry, born Angelina, and she’s almost as sensual and vulnerable as Norma Jeane Baker, before she changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.
Poor Angelina. A pretty California teenager from Long Beach who toils away in a launderette, cleaning up her alcoholic mother’s vomit, taking care of her little sister and dating a boyfriend named Tommy who plays in a second-rate rock band, she’s stuck in a dead-end life with no possibility of parole. The plot is so familiar you can run it on your eyeballs in the dark. When Tommy presents an offer to make a few hundred dollars to pose for nude photos, she reluctantly gives in. The money is so easy that ultimately she leaves for the bright neon of San Francisco’s tenderloin to make more, sharing a room (and platonic bed) with her only friend and confidante, an Indian immigrant from an equally unhappy home named Andrew (Dev Patel, from Slumdog Millionaire), who tags along to keep her company. Separately, they explore their sexual identities. He works in a bookstore and hangs out in gay dance bars; she gets a job in a strip club, changes her name to Cherry, and casually drifts into the adult film industry. While the movie investigates every humiliation young girls experience in the trade, Cherry also becomes the object of desire in an emotional tug of war between a suave, drug-addicted lawyer (James Franco in yet another ill-chosen role that goes nowhere) and a horny lesbian director (Heather Graham) who breaks off an eight-year banquet with a lady realtor to sink her teeth into a younger, more appetizing amuse bouche. Defying all logic and truth in her life, Cherry sits on a bluff, gazing blankly at the dirty smog below, and calling what she sees “the most beautiful city in the world.” In addition to all the other unfortunate ways you could describe her, did I forget to mention she redefines the word “clueless”?
As a grim picture of contemporary youth, unfocused and lost, with iPods stuck in their ears and nothing to do but smoke weed and play video games, About Cherry is full of ideas about sex but offers no fresh insights about any of them. Among the many plot twists that defy reason is Angelina rejecting Andrew, her only friend, because he falls in love with her. She’s slept with everybody else in town, but she flies into a rage when she discovers she’s been sharing the same bed with a man who is not homosexual. Duh. No wonder the acting seems so confused. The actors thrash around, seeking in vain the moral center of their roles, especially the raw, exciting and gorgeous Ashley Hinshaw, who is so appealing in the title role. I long to see what she could do in the hands of a more sympathetic director. Wasted again, Heather Graham has a wide-eyed sex appeal that has never been properly captured on film, even when she played the cleverest victim of Jack the Ripper in From Hell. Lili Taylor does her usual sleazy reprobate bit as the hateful mother. James Franco’s role hardly exists. He’s a doped-up cipher who attends museum openings and drives his car into a cement wall, looking as bored and out of place as he did hosting the Academy Awards. They can all act, but the script is so banal it reminds me of the line by Julianne Moore in Elektra Luxx, playing an XXX-rated porn star pretending to be an intellectual Virgin Mary: “Ask me anything … as long as it isn’t the capitol of South Dakota.”
In what passes now as Method acting, whole scenes go by in which the dialogue is so garbled you can’t tell what anyone is saying. I advise the director and the cast to run the movies of Kim Stanley, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Julie Harris, Geraldine Page—even James Dean, who invented the “mumblecore” style. They were icons of the Stanislavski method, but every word was clear as a bell. Naturalism is nice, but director Stephen Elliott has not yet learned there comes a point in every movie where it is vital to hear what the actors are saying. The movie is mildly titillating, corrosive and painful—everybody hurts everybody else and nobody learns anything from their mistakes except how to mumble. But About Cherry is not gritty or real enough, and I don’t know what the point of it is. Young girls desperate for danger and excitement will leave this movie with the idea that the porno business is harmless fun. The pay is good and everybody gets tested for HIV in advance. It’s pornography bathed in the tangerine glow of fruit-scented candlelight.
Running Time 102 minutes
Written by Lorelei Lee and Stephen Elliot
Directed by Stephen Elliot
Starring James Franco, Heather Graham and Sensi Pearl