Early buzz about John Cameron Mitchell's follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch was that it was going to be loaded with real sex -- not the blue-lit, horizontally docking faces of mainstream movies but not the characterless coupling of porn, either. After years of buzz, actually seeing Shortbus leaves you wanting to invent new adjectives -- Fucktastic! Cocktacular! Breastalicious! -- but it also leaves you more than a little impressed by how funny and loose and, yes, emotionally engaging the film is. All the sex makes Shortbus kinda hot, but what's surprising is how Mitchell's sensibility and comedic charm makes it warm, too.
James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ De Boy) are a gay couple dealing with the monotony of monogamy -- and, as we learn, the fact that one half of the couple is a bit more hopelessly devoted than the other. Couples Counselor Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) is trying to help Jamie and James -- although when she reveals she's never had an orgasm with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker), the phrase "physician, heal thyself" flits through your mind. Jamie and James invite Sofia to a sex/performance space called Shortbus, where Sofia meets and befriends the Dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish). Of course, these are contextual introductions: The film opens with James masturbating furiously before Jamie gets home, Rob and Sofia running through a gallery of positions like they're proofing the Kama Sutra with an imminent deadline and Severin beating the hell out of an annoying-yet-appealing client in a hotel suite overlooking Ground Zero.
Shortbus isn't just interested in how these characters have sex, even if they do a lot of it; it's just as interested in the connections of hearts and minds as it is in the mechanics of inserting tab 'a' into slot 'b' (and 'c' and 'd' and rubbing tab 'a' against tab 'e' and much more). By and large, Shortbus has as much to do with real sex as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has to do with real confectionery: It's a bright-colored, fanciful, fun world of pure imagination. Although thinking about it -- specifically, a scene where a three-way includes a vocalization of The Star-Spangled Banner directly into another partner's tender bits -- 'pure' might not be the right adjective.
And Shortbus doesn't lie to itself about how artificial it is, either: It features a brilliantly realized 3-D model of Manhattan that the camera zooms through to go from location to location. There's a lot of physical comedy in the film too, believe it or not, like when Sofia takes Rob to Shortbus and gives him a remote control for her vibrator -- which he first forgets and then loses. And there's also a certain amount of emotional integrity as well: Severin's not exactly ecstatic about her life choices; James used to be a hustler, a he looks back on with sadness; one of the characters is planning a suicide with meticulous integrity. It's rare for a film to leave you aroused and amused, hopeful and horny, impressed by both the development of the characters and the flexibility of the actors -- but the sexy, silly, startling, slight-but-sweet Shortbus pulls all those things off.