A Dirty Shame
A Dirty Shame

UK/USA, 2004. Rated NC-17. 89 minutes.

Cast: Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Selma Blair, Chris Isaak, Suzanne Shepherd, Patricia Campbell Hearst, Ricky Lake, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, Scott Wesley Morgan
Writer: John Waters
Original Music: George S. Clinton
Cinematography: Steve Gainer
Producers: Mark Ordesky, Mark Kaufman, Merideth Finn
Director: John Waters


Grade: B Review by Erika Hernandez

Warning: This review contains foul references to our “no, no” parts and what we do with them. Like the film, the review is rated NC-17.

John Waters (director of films like Hairspray, Serial Mom, Polyester, and Cecil B. Demented) doesn't just play with traditional genres. He shellacs them with raunchiness, tickles them on the belly, bends them over his knee, spanks them twice with a cupped hand, and asks them to call him “Daddy.” All bets are off when you are on Waters' turf, but resigning yourself to his universe can be rather liberating.

In a Waters universe, a spoof on America's warped attitudes toward Sex would contain an unbelievable plot, crude language, campy caricatures, ‘50s B-movie paranoia, and exaggerated acting. A Dirty Shame has all these things. With the latitude permitted by an NC-17 rating, Waters twists Invasion of the Body Snatchers into Invasion of the Cock and Snatch.

A Dirty Shame is set in a present day, blue-collar section of Baltimore. On cozy Hartford Road, Waters introduces us to the Stickles family morning routine. Sylvia (Tracey Ullman), an obvious frump, concentrates on making breakfast and heading out to the family-owned drugstore. Sylvia's husband, Vaughn (Chris Isaak) proposes a morning quickie, but is rejected and retreats to the bathroom with a porno magazine.

Sylvia pays a quick visit to their daughter Caprice (Selma Blair), an exotic dancer known as “Ursula Udders” who sports a set of synthetic breasts fit for a Russ Meyer movie. An embarrassment to her family, Caprice is under court-ordered house arrest for indecent exposure. This girl is not the only freak on the block. The Stickles' neighbors include a couple who is into swinging, and trio of self-proclaimed gay “bears.”

Chris Isaak and Tracey Ullman
Chris Isaak and Tracey Ullman in John Waters' A Dirty Shame.

The Hartford Road area is a land of sexual polarization. Like Cry Baby's “Squares” and “Drapes,” A Dirty Shame's society is segmented into two groups: (1) Sex Addicts and (2) Neuters. Sylvia of course is a Neuter, until she is accidentally hit in the head and suffers a concussion. To her rescue comes Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville, who pulls off quite the Jim Carrey impression), the leader of a Sex Cult comprised of former Neuters who have endured concussions. When Sylvia awakens, she exclaims that her “pussy is on fire,” and begs Ray-Ray to go down on her. He does. She has an earth shattering orgasm, and is reborn.

Gliding into work, she greets her Neuter zealot mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd). Disgusted by the uprising of the oversexed, Ethel has launched a “No More Tolerance” campaign. She motivates the fearful and ignorant, who spout off exhortations like, “ We have to do something! Crotches are being shaved as we speak!”

Though pleased with Sylvia's newfound libido, Vaughn becomes concerned when she performs a sexual trick involving a water bottle in front of his mother's entire nursing home community. Sylvia is now obsessed with sexual gratification. She turns again to Ray-Ray, who introduces her to his eleven disciples (each of whom represents a specific perversion), and crowns Sylvia as Number Twelve. Their mission, Sylvia learns, is to find a brand-new sex act that will set all Neuters free. Embracing her new role, Sylvia comes out to her daughter Clarice as a fellow Sex Addict, and a “Cunnilingus Bottom” (a female who has a preference for receiving oral sex). Waters gives you the film's most tender moment when Mom exclaims to daughter, “Let's go to the Holiday House and fuck the whole bar!”

As the cultural war between Sex Addicts and Neuters intensifies, Waters shows off his research into sexual deviancy. There are references to the “human sandwich” (ménage a trois), chronic masturbation, “golden showers” (urinating on a sexual partner), “Roman showers” (vomiting on a sexual partner), “earning red wings” (performing oral sex on a menstruating partner), autoerotic asphyxiation, exhibitionism, “rimming” (licking a sexual partner's anus), sadomasochism, “helicoptering” (the slapping of the penis against a sexual partner's face), shoe fetishism, and mycophilia (deriving sexual gratification through exposure to dirt and germs).

A Dirty Shame's performances are absurd, unsophisticated, and surreal—which in a Waters universe is ideal. But once you get over your preliminary shock and squeamishness, the gag wears a bit thin for a feature-length film. Spending more time among the Neuters might have resolved this. Waters' “Big Ethel” character is a remarkable one. When she propagates the Neuter agenda of “Normalcy” from her convenience-store counter, it is fascinating. You think, “My God. This crap actually happens. Entire regimes, religions, and presidential campaigns have been formed on little more than fear, shame, and a podium.”

Despite Waters' determination to shock at every moment rather than developing the more philosophical aspects of the piece, his film is an ambitious, defiant little creature. A Dirty Shame takes this country's Puritanical-hypocritical fixation on what we should and should not do with our body parts, and sublimely violates it, sans lube.

Review © September 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 City Lights Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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