Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) enjoys great and athletic sex with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker) but she still feels there's something missing from her life, and that's something she shares in common with quite a few women. Meanwhile, across New York City others have issues too, such as James (Paul Dawson) who is recording his life on video as a gift to his boyfriend Jamie (PJ DeBoy) because he has plans for himself, although his current plan to give himself a blowjob hasn't gone too well and has left him crying on the floor, unaware he is being watched by a stalker across the way...
For his follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a transsexual musical which wallowed epically in self-pity, John Cameron Mitchell decided not to take a leading role in front of the camera, and instead auditioned a bunch of hopefuls on one condition: that they would be willing to perform actual sex acts onscreen. Not that Shortbus was wall to wall pornography, as the idea was to introduce the sex organically into the plot so that it could be viewed as a facet of the character's lives, accompanied by other aspects to craft three-dimensional personalities rather than be a film filled with over ninety minutes of porn-level thespianism.
Except of course, no matter how you dress it up, unsimulated intercourse in a movie is always going to overshadow everything else in the production, so no matter how open-minded you are, it's those explicit images which tend to stick around. Join that with a cast who came across as largely amateur, and dramatically speaking Mitchell could have had a recipe for disaster on his hands, yet oddly thanks to performers who may not be the greatest talents around but came across as perfectly decent people you did find yourself warming to them and their problems. The fact that they did depict a near cliché of self-absorbed New Yorkers wasn't really a mark in their favour, mind you.
It's the sort of film where an argument can be explained away when one character confesses "I'm pre-orgasmic!", which is not often the kind of complaint you hear in your usual drama, but here is crucial to Sofia's happiness. Some of the methods she investigates to avail herself of this are comedic, while others are more serious, so if you're contending with not only that but James and Jamie's relationship problems and Severin the dominatrix (Lindsay Beamish) who cannot make an emotional connection when she spends her days whipping and insulting clients, and you have a movie which appeared to have been written after close perusal of an agony aunt's problem page instead of something many outside the circle of characters could relate to.
The Shortbus of the title is a nightclub where all inhibitions are left at the door and everybody gets down to coupling with each other - tripling and quadrupling and more should the mood take them. Being a sex therapist, Sofia decides to take James and Jamie's advice and attend a session there: surely she can reach her climax in that heady atmosphere? Yet there's very little about the film that's erotic as the sex seems too calculated, too obviously in competition with actual porn, so the club we see all these saucy shenanigans taking place doesn't have much appeal to the majority, it's more of a fantasy construct. Which leaves us with those troubled souls to appreciate, a brace of New Yorkers feeling very sorry for themselves, but finally laughing through the tears and coming to terms with whatever happened to be on their minds. Even with the stalker about, there were no villains in Shortbus, which was refreshing in itself: the generosity of spirit was the strongest point. Music by Yo La Tengo.