By Jette Kernion (reprint from 3/17/09 -- SXSW Film Festival)

I'm wary of movies that try to be instant cult/camp classics, with intentionally overdone dialogue and outrageous costumes and actors who are metaphorically winking or even non-metaphorically mugging for the camera. When the characters are in on the joke, it isn't all that funny. And when I learned that the writer-director of Women in Trouble also co-wrote Snakes on a Plane, I grew even more skeptical. But the actresses who populate Women in Trouble tend to play it straight, even when they're wearing assless spandex pants or smoking invisible cigarettes, and that's what keeps this film fun instead of tiresome.

Women in Trouble has a multi-story, anthology-like structure. Writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez said before the SXSW screening that he originally had one ten-page sequence that he wanted to shoot, then thought it might be easy to shoot several of them, all with different actresses, to make a good movie quickly. Apparently it wasn't all that easy, but the result is a large cast of mostly actresses playing a variety of the traditional exploitation "women in trouble." These include porn stars, tag-team hookers (one in a Catholic school uniform, natch), stewardesses (they're not flight attendants when we're poking fun at the exploitation genre), unmarried-and-pregnant women, and a very understanding masseuse.

Once you get used to the anthology structure, you can enjoy the characters' plights. Porn star Elektra Luxx (Carla Gugino) gets stuck in an elevator with the seemingly straight-laced Doris (Connie Britton), who just had a fight with her sister, Addy. Addy's upset because she's been having an affair with the husband (Simon Baker) of her therapist, who nearly caught them in the act. The therapist isn't happy about it either, and ends up drunk in a bar with two hookers, Holly Rocket and Bambi (Emmanuelle Chriqui), who had to flee an unexpected situation. Meanwhile, in another part of the world, Cora the stew (Marley Shelton) is being propositioned by a rock star (Josh Brolin) during a long flight, and she isn't sure what to do.

If that sounds complicated, I haven't even mentioned pre-teen Charlotte's situation, or the ridiculous post-credit sequence with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I feel like I'm recapping some Bizarro World Days of Our Lives episode, although I'm sure no soap opera would touch many of these situations. Fortunately, the outfits help you remember who's who in the large cast.

The movie sometimes relies on too many cliches and plot twists we've seen in other movies. Of course, the Marley Shelton-Josh Brolin scenes are funnier if you've seen the Planet Terror part of Grindhouse. But Holly Rocket's big revelatory scene was way too close to the plot of another movie I'd seen recently, which handled the topic better, and so the scene was more tedious than entertaining. Some of the more straightforward dramatic scenes, such as Elektra and Doris discussing their futures, seemed more suited to the Lifetime channel.

The female characters in this film might seem at first to be right out of an exploitation film, lurid comic book, or Sin City -- you automatically wonder if this will be a man's perception of what women are like, especially since the writer-director is male. But the actresses grab these roles and give them depth and personality and more humanity than you'd expect from their dialogue and costumes. And quite frankly, I'm not going to turn up my nose at a movie stocked full of strong and powerful women, even if they're scantily clad and tend to be focused on sex-related issues. There's a certain pleasure in seeing a movie where the men are relegated to the Supportive Spouse and Lust Interest roles, after I've seen so many films where those are the only roles for women.

Putting all of that aside, Women in Trouble is a fun addition to the current trend of revisiting and reworking exploitation-film themes in a lighthearted way. The soundtrack features original music from Robyn Hitchcock that evokes some of Tarantino's films, especially when paired with the opening credits. Gutierrez is already working on a follow-up film that focuses on Gugino's sexy but sensible Elektra Luxx, with appearances from Holly Rocket and a few of the other characters. If you get the chance to see Women in Trouble first, at least you'll be prepared for the sequel.