Film » Film Features

Service Without a Smile

Life goes on inside a family-run gay porn theater

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Inside a rundown movie theater that also houses a diner and an extended family, a young woman stands nude in front of a mirror, applying lipstick and mouthing "I love you." In another room, an artist with a limp paints naked women. Downstairs, a cook prepares breakfast. A little boy runs from room to room.

The Philippine family members in Brillante Mendoza's Serbis don't get much time to themselves. Everyone's too busy with their day-to-day lives: running the diner, mopping the floors and operating the theater, which screens porn for gay and horny men. The brood — made up of various children, grandchildren, in-laws and other strays — is overseen by a tough, proud woman who's suing her husband for having another wife and children on the side.

As the movie slowly unfolds, characters are revealed one by one, and their stories and connections to each other are pieced together, until a slender narrative surfaces. The cash-strapped family used to run three movie houses; this is their last one. The diner doesn't do much business, and customers often skip out without paying their bills.

Serbis (it means "service") essentially depicts a day in the life of this extended family. Their theater welcomes gay prostitutes, hustlers and transvestites who roam the aisles in search of johns. Nobody watches what happens onscreen; they're all too busy giving or receiving blowjobs.

And not much happens here. Even as a slow-moving family portrait, Serbis really doesn't have much to say and rarely moves outside of its dilapidated walls. Characters move in and out of scenes, and the camera follows, picking up other characters and stories along the way.

You get the feeling that this is what happens every single day: Walls are painted, rice is cooked and boys look for quickies inside the theater. It's the little everyday things that lead up to the not-so-huge events that make up these characters' lives. Too bad the film doesn't make a bigger deal out of them.

mgallucci@clevescene.com

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