Assuming they make it through the opening montage of hardcore fuckery, viewers on the fence about Shortbus will encounter a litmus test a little further in. Looking to open up their relationship, a gay couple (Paul Dawson, PJ DeBoy), known to their acquaintances as "the Jamies" due to their matched names and similar appearance, bring a new friend back to their apartment. After some initial awkwardness, they move into a three-way, which includes a lengthy stay in a position that lets one participant sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" into another's ass. For some, this will look like everything the field marshals on one side of the culture war warned them about. Others will see it as a patriotic expression of the right to pursue happiness, in a time when life and liberty has plenty of threats both within and without.
A relationship drama that keeps the cameras rolling once the genitals come out, John Cameron Mitchell's follow-up to Hedwig And The Angry Inch only sounds like a tremendous folly. It's remarkable how quickly the explicitness becomes unremarkable as the film progresses through interlocked stories about how love and sex don't always fit together the way they should for a group of New Yorkers connected by a gathering space known as Shortbus. A salon/orgy described by cross-dressing host Justin Bond as "just like the '60s, only with less hope," it's a place where everybody lets it all hang out, even if they don't feel particularly comfortable with what's out there. The Jamies don't seem to know exactly what they want from each other, much less a third partner. Sook-Yin Lee plays a sex therapist who's never had an orgasm, a pat predicament made believable by her winning performance. Her developing relationship with depressive dominatrix Lindsay Beamish is part patient-therapist, but mostly dangerously undefined.
The film spends a lot of time in those messy gray areas, discovering how sex can clear things up or make them cloudier. Developed by Mitchell and the actors, the characters don't always seem consistent from moment to moment, but a sharp sense of humor and comfortable performances by a committed and—it must be said—remarkably limber cast help smooth over the rough edges. So does the moving tone of warmth and forgiveness. Mitchell's infectious concern for his characters' wellbeing steers them toward an ending that's as much a fantasy as anything Nora Ephron ever dreamed up, but maybe that's okay. A right to one's own fantasies is the least of his film's demands.