All Francine Fishpaw (Divine) wants is a happy family around her, but her actual family are constantly letting her down, much to her humiliation. Take her husband, Elmer (David Samson), who owns a porno theatre that the locals are vehemently against: today there is a picket outside the Fishpaw home that Francine is mortified about, yet her spouse is delighted by as this means more publicity. He's just upset that the television news crew hasn't arrived yet, so he telephones them, providing more stress for his wife, as if she didn't have enough to worry about with a daughter, Lulu (Mary Garlington) hanging with the wrong crowd and a son, Dexter (Ken King), a foot-fetishising pervert...
The general reaction to writer and director John Waters' Polyester among the critics seemed to have been, hey, he's sold out, this is no way as outrageous as his previous work. And it's true that there was hardly any strong language or imagery that would make polite society want to vomit into their handbags, but those accusers were missing the point in that Waters was moving on, and paying tribute to the Douglas Sirk movies he was so enamoured of. Although the details were admittedly very different from the likes of All That Heaven Allows, Francine could very well have been a Sirk heroine judging by the amount of heartache she suffers.
Waters certainly shovels on the troubles for Francine, recognising that the female protagonists of nineteen-fifties soap opera movies had to suffer before they had their final happiness. The difference here is that we are meant to laugh at the trials and tribulations, although crucially while we do we never feel as if we're looking down on Francine, merely enjoying the ridiculous situations and square-baiting comedy as she heads towards alcoholism. Indeed, take out the humour and Polyester could very well have been played straight: a remake by Todd Haynes that upped the angst and dismissed the laughs might be a decent sequel to Far from Heaven.
But this is funny, sometimes hilariously so, with as ever a host of quotable lines - "What if Mary and Joseph had an abortion?!" screams one pro-lifer in an example of Waters taking the moralist's high ground to absurd extremes to show them up. The main characters get quite some volume of snappy dialogue too, from Divine's wailing through Francine's experiences to her best friend Cuddles and Edith Massey's inimitable delivery, everyone relishes their roles and if there's nothing here to match the sustained offensiveness of Pink Flamingos it is a lot more amusing rather than deliberately disgusting as his earlier work had been.
But there is one aspect to Polyester that places it on a par with those films, and that's the William Castle-style gimmick of Odorama. Audiences were handed out scratch and sniff cards to use whenever the appropriate number appeared onscreen, which offered them the chance to appreciate the scent of a rose - or sniff glue along with the punks. I don't need to tell you what Number 2 was. To tie this in with the plot, Francine has a highly developed sense of smell, an idea sustained throughout with ingenuity and wit, also making her a kind of detective figure as she tracks down her adulterous husband. Once she has split up with him, and he has tormented his overweight wife by ordering boxes and boxes of pizza, she is free to be romanced by Todd Tomorrow, played by a game Tab Hunter (he even snogs Divine), but used far too sparingly. She is allowed to win the day, but not after she tackles the gap between standards of suburban decency and the all-too-human failings around her, making her one of Waters' most sympathetic leads. Music by Chris Stein (of Blondie) and Michael Kamen.
Witty American writer/director, the chief proponent of deliberate bad taste in American films. His early efforts are little more than glorified home movies, including Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, but with the notorious Pink Flamingos Waters found his cult audience.