Shortbus is primarily significant for the exact reason I feared the most: it proves that director John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch was an accident. That shouldn't be surprising: Hedwig was a gift-wrapped present of stylistic possibilities. Still, that style came from somewhere in the filmmaker's mind, and it's shocking - nay, it verges on insulting - that Mitchell's three-years-in-the-making sophomore effort should turn out so inert.

If you know one thing about Shortbus, you know that it's the film with explicit sex scenes that isn't a porno. And for that, Mitchell deserves praise: American cinema has a well-documented fear of sex, and the much more libertine European cinema tends to depict sex as an act that people who despise each other engage in without any trace of pleasure. So a film that stands up and says, "sex is a fun thing that brings people together!" does serves a purpose. (Although this film is actually saying, "sex is a fun thing that gives hopelessly depressed people something to do with their useless lives!" Baby steps).

Tragically, cinema is not an undergraduate psych theory class, and if good intentions were all that it took to make a good film, All the King's Men would be the best picture of 2006. Good films come from things like a significant and consistent visual language and well-expressed characters, and these are not the qualities of Shortbus.

The film revolves around four characters: Sofia (Sook-yin Lee), the pre-orgasmic sex therapist (or as she annoyingly insists like five time, "couples counselor") trapped in a hyperneurotic marriage; James and Jamie (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy), her gay patients who aren't sure about the status of their relationship; and Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix who doesn't like other human beings. Severin is awesome, because as the film progresses, she doesn't ever start to like other human beings, and given that she lives in the world of this film, she should not. Other people circle this core, looking for emotional connection and sex. They all find it at Shortbus, a sex salon operated by Justin Bond as "Justin Bond," in the film's only good performance.

There is no more indicative problem with the film than the realisation of Shortbus. As the center from which all sexual energy and liberation in the movie emanates, it should be flashy and magical and colorful and wonderful, Oz mixed with the Moulin Rouge as imagined by John Waters. Instead, it looks like someone's house, with many naked people and some beaded curtains. There is a movie screen where people watch ironic experimental films. For a hedonistic paradise, it looks outstandingly boring, and if this is what I'm missing by living outside of New York and seeing movies instead of dating people, all I can say is hoorah for movies.

What a horrible disappointment this is after Hedwig! How can this vanilla mess of a film be from the same mind that staged the brilliantly garish "Wig in a Box" musical number? The only trace of that playfulness is the fake New York that serves for the establishing shots, all pastels and expressionism, and even that is severely dulled by the far superior cardboard metropolis of Michel Gondry's recent The Science of Sleep. Not to mention that it exists only so Mitchell can create an idealized version of what he wants New York to be, so he can ladle all sorts of incredibly idiotic NY worship into the film. Do young people really go to New York to be forgiven? I don't know, because I can't figure out what the hell that's even supposed to mean.

(Fun game aside: compare Shortbus and Eyes Wide Shut. Both are films about sexual liberation in extraordinarily fake versions of New York, one by a man who loves the city and loves sex, one by a man who apparently hates the city, sex, humanity and himself. And despite how utterly sour it is, the Kubrick film is infinitely superior in every way, because it was directed by a person who put more effort into the look of his title sequences than Mitchell puts into his entire film. The moral of the game: Film Is A Visual Medium).

Setting aside the fact that it looks like nothing (actually, not quite yet: can we officially declare that shooting on video because it's cheap does not make it okay to have a cheap-looking film, and ugliness is not a fucking virtue, and if you have that much freaking noise in the night scenes, you need to hire a new goddamn cinematographer?), is it a good story? Oh, my, no. But it could be. It could be and it really wants to try. In fact, the first 40 minutes of the film work as a story. It's a playful and funny, the absurdity of sex is mixed well with the eroticism, and meeting the characters works. The problem is that Mitchell and his actors half seemingly dozens of good ideas, all of which are left half-done. Once the plot gets in full swing, the playfulness dies a very lonely death. And the characters' problems are not interesting. They are Indie Relationship Drama 101 level stuff.

That's the sin of Shortbus in a nutshell: it's every indie movie ever, and it thinks it can distract you from that with sex. It can't. It took three years of careful work with the actors for Mitchell to develop the characters and story, and here are the sorts of things we end up with: a suicidally depressed gay man, a friendless dominatrix with a bad father, and the line "Voyeurism is participation" served up as a profundity. It feels like the result of a weekend pot binge. The sort of people who still think American Beauty was deep and philosophically awakening might buy that these people have compelling inner lives, but they're garden variety whiny hipsters. The characters' views on intimacy and human connectivity speak to the emotional maturity of a seventeen-year-old.

The best for last: the film is about how living post-9/11 is sad, and how sex changed after 9/11. I wouldn't know if that's true or not. I can say that the film's depiction of "post-9/11" is horribly NY-myopic. Apologies to my NY readers. It remains that your city's relationship with terrorism is way more annoying than tragic. Setting aside my own personal feelings, Shortbus is entirely unsubtle about this theme, with speech after speech expressing this idea in thuddingly literal terms. Not one good film has ever come from "let us state the theme outright." Not a single one.

And the political implications of sex? I understand that Mitchell wants to argue that sexually experimental individuals are good citizens, which is unfortunately a necessary argument to make in Bush's America. But as one of the central themes of a film, it's dreary and polemical and returns to the "good intentions" thing I mentioned at the top. And for what it's worth, if I was being given a rimjob by a person, and he started singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" into my ass, I would not be filled with sex-positive patriotic fervor. I would politely ask him to stop, because it would be weird.