For all the sex, “Shortbus” is surprisingly tame

In “Shortbus,” strangers meet at an underground salon to fulfill their sexual fantasies, and director John Cameron Mitchell faithfully records these encounters in all their graphic, non-simulated, unobstructed glory. Sounds obscene, doesn’t it? Surprisingly, “Shortbus” – for all its onscreen lewdness – is strangely tame.

Mitchell became famous (“a star of stage and screen,” as he would put it) with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” an off-Broadway musical turned award-winning film. “Hedwig,” an ironic tribute to gender-bending 70’s glam rock, was both affectionate and sharp. The latter quality is oddly missing here.

“Shortbus” was formed out of workshops where the actors (chosen through an open casting call: hopefuls sent in tapes describing an emotional sexual experience), helped develop the characters and the dialogue. It shows. The characters are drama class clich?s. There’s Sofia (Sook Yin-Lee), the sex therapist who can’t have an orgasm; Severin, the dominatrix who just wants to be loved; and Jamie and James, the perfect couple that’s actually not. Only Lee, with her battle-weary gaze, transcends the flimsy material and presents a person, not a list of character traits.

The plot is a series of mini-conflicts that advance with such squeamishness that no momentum builds. Nothing is unnatural, and nothing is surprising. The attendees of “Shortbus” are so soft and sensitive that they never collide with any force. “It was kind of like a mini group therapy,” Mitchell said, and that’s the problem.

In one confessional meeting, Severin tells Sofia she just wants “to have a house and a cat.” Sofia replies eagerly, “I’ve been waiting to hear you say these things.” So much for subversiveness. Mitchell seems determined not to sensationalize his pornographic project of a film, and he goes too far the other way.

The humor also lacks bite. Jamie always repeats the tagline from the show he starred on as a child, even while having sex. Severin shares a real name with a famous actress. Couples meet through a cell phone “Yenta” dating service. This kind of subtle social comedy is amusing, but too mellow to make up for the lack of drama.

The sex scenes come off better, but they aren’t the plot devices Mitchell wants them to be. He says you can learn a lot about a character from watching them have sex: “It’s very revealing.” Physically, sure. But not emotionally. He compares these interludes to the songs he used in “Hedwig,” but they’re more like dance-fascinating but abstract. They need a compelling story to give them coherence, not the other way around.

There are a few traces of “Hedwig’s” sparkle amid the mush. One is Justin Bond (Kiki from the drag lounge act “Kiki and Herb”), playing the laconic Shortbus host with grand style. Another is the gorgeous, inventive cinematography that turns New York into an adult wonderland. Location changes are signaled by panoramic sweeps across animator John Bair pastel diorama of the city, filled with warm little lights. In one particularly beautiful scene, Sofia lies on a bench, her frustration glowing through the saturated scenery.

The ending, too, is a sign of what “Shortbus” might have been. After a brownout (a recurring motif), Bond waltzes around his apartment, lighting candles. He belts out a maniacal rendition of the Who’s “Another Tricky Day” (full of suggestive lyrics: “We all get it in the end . . . We go down and we come up again”) as a marching band weaves through the copulating crowd. It’s funny and strange and a little scary. Otherwise, “Shortbus” is like Sofia’s sex life: sweet, but not nearly as ecstatic as it could be.

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