A DIRTY SHAME (John Waters, 2004)
Charging John Waters' latest film A DIRTY SHAME with tastelessness sounds more like a seal of approval than condemnation. Tacky and crude is what Waters does. Only the most unsuspecting moviegoer, one oblivious to the director's filmography, the marketing campaign, and the film's NC-17 rating, will be shocked to see what Waters puts on the screen.
A DIRTY SHAME sends up sexual Puritanism in this country, a topic ripe for the satirical treatment in a year with the much overblown Super Bowl halftime show controversy. Waters borrows the tone of 1950s reactionary films but subverts the genre by positioning the deviants as heroes.
Baltimore housewife and convenience store worker Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) is uninterested in sex, if not sickened by it. She spurns husband Vaughn's (Chris Isaak) advances in favor of frying scrapple and has locked up gargantuan-breasted exhibitionist daughter Caprice (Selma Blair) to keep her from flaunting her goods at area clubs. An accidental blow to the head awakens Sylvia's carnal stirrings. Before you know it she's slinking around town in leopard print clothes and soliciting any man willing to give her cunnilingus.
Sex saint Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville) reveals to Sylvia that she is one of the twelve apostles who will bring about the "resurr-sex-ion" with the discovery of a new sex act. Her fellow freaks include an adult baby, husky and hairy gay men called bears, and a dirt fetishist who gets off from licking the ground and tires, among other unsanitary things. The other apostles also received inadvertent concussions that brought their sexual liberation to the surface.
Needless to say, the good citizens of the community are appalled that Ray-Ray's disciples are practicing and preaching their erotic gospel in public. Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), Sylvia's frigid mother, organizes decency rallies of sexually repressed likeminded "neuters" to fight the indecency.
A DIRTY SHAME is outrageous for the sake of being outrageous, but unlike some of Waters' other films, it's neither shocking nor funny. In recent years the line of good taste has been crossed in mainstream comedies, making it more difficult for Waters to push the envelope like he did with PINK FLAMINGOS and POLYESTER. (THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VAN WILDER, to pick examples on opposing ends of the quality spectrum, feature gross-out gags that would be at home in Waters' films.) Waters and his cast think they're being naughty, but the bawdy jokes, repeated ad nauseam, are feeble and frequently telegraphed. Waters loves B and C-list celebrities, but haven't enough David Hasselhoff jokes been made to eliminate any humor in having the BAYWATCH star's CGI turds bonk Chris Isaak on the head? Only Ullman's sex club version of "The Hokey Pokey" performed at a retirement home sustains any comedic momentum.
A DIRTY SHAME also comes across as ideologically confused. The film's sex-positive message is offset by how the repression is erased. Only the concussed are enlightened. Perhaps it's Waters' way of poking fun at those who desire sexual permissiveness, but that isn't the impression A DIRTY SHAME leaves. The prudes serve as the main target, but even the most liberal viewers are likely to object to the notion that public masturbation and intercourse in the streets is healthy for society.
Waters has never been considered the most polished of filmmakers, and that won't change with A DIRTY SHAME. This time around, though, don't expect a Broadway musical adaptation to follow.