Dirty Shame, A (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It can be convincingly argued that John Waters' oeuvre is an acquired taste. If that's the case, I haven't yet acquired it. I view Waters as a pre-adolescent male in a state of arrested development. He is obsessed with what kids snickeringly refer to as "potty humor," and his movies reek of it. Rather than being incisive or challenging, they're merely vulgar and offensive. (And it takes a lot to offend me…) There's nothing in Waters' latest, A Dirty Shame, to rival his most infamous cinematic moment (Divine eating a turd in Pink Flamingos), but there's some pretty gross stuff. The title is apropos.

Waters' sole agenda with this movie is to argue that America's views of sexuality are screwed up. He won't get any argument from me, but isn't this a tad too obvious, not to mention limiting, for a feature length motion picture? A Waters trademark has never been subtlety, and, true to form, he barrels ahead with a sledgehammer approach. There are no characters here, just broad caricatures on both sides of the issue: the "sex addicts" (who believe in free sex, anytime, anywhere) and the "neuters" (who believe that "sex" is a dirty word). The story is trite and uninteresting. And the humor is only occasionally funny, and that's largely because it's almost impossible not to be impressed by Tracey Ullman's manic energy.

Ullman plays Sylvia Stickles, a middle-aged woman who believes that sex is only for perverts. Her attitude makes that of the Reverend Billy Graham seem hedonistic by comparison. Sylvia's husband, Vaughn (Chris Issak), has become so desperate for physical release that he hides in the bathroom and masturbates. When Sylvia catches him in the act, she is disgusted. Sylvia's daughter, Caprice (Selma Blair), a stripper whose stage name is "Ursula Udders" (appropriate considering the size of her breasts, which make Dolly Parton's look small and perky), is under house arrest after her third conviction of public indecency. And Sylvia's mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), is organizing a citizen's decency rally to stamp out homosexuality and public lewdness. Then, one morning, Sylvia suffers a concussion. While she is still dazed, the mysterious Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville) arrives, preaching sexual liberation. Suddenly, Sylvia becomes a sex addict, putting her in conflict with her repressed mother. And the battle lines are drawn in the war of sexual liberation on Hartford Road.

A Dirty Shame opens effectively, with a shot of a typical suburban house. Cheerful, '50-style sitcom music plays in the background while birds chirp contentedly. Inside, scrapple is frying in a pan. Unfortunately, after this set-up, which could have been lifted out of a David Lynch picture, it's down hill. Despite the film's obvious satirical bent, it's rarely funny, and some of the big "laughs" are more disgusting than humorous. (A man with a scatological fetish uses a woman's purse for a toilet. She reaches in to get her medicine and…) For roughly 30 minutes, A Dirty Shame is tolerable. After that, it becomes increasingly grating until it comes painfully close to being unwatchable. To get through the entire movie, you'll need a warped sense of humor and a strong stomach, or an unshakable affinity for John Waters. Anyone else will be as put off as I was.

Arguably, the film's most clever moment isn't as smart as it thinks it is. There's a brief cameo featuring David Hasselhoff poking fun at his image. A few months, that might have been amusing; however, Dodgeball beat A Dirty Shame to the finish line, offering a more ingenious version of the same gag. Even if Waters got the idea first, his execution is less likely to induce chuckles - unless the sight of Hasselhoff sitting on a toilet will bring on convulsions of laughter.

Tracey Ullman is a bright spot in an otherwise sordid, murky production. Ullman does as much as she can with her character, and, for a while, Sylvia is enough to carry the film. But, after about a half-hour, even her charm wears thin. Selma Blair gets to wear what may be the biggest prosthetic breasts ever used in a motion picture. Kudos to the makeup department - they look real. But this is another joke that rapidly loses its comedic value. Seeing tiny Blair with such huge jugs is only funny at first. Johnny Knoxville (the "Jackass" guy) bears an uncanny resemblance to Timothy Olyphant. A few Waters "regulars" have roles, including Ricki Lake, Patricia Hearst, and Mink Stole.

The MPAA awarded A Dirty Shame an NC-17 rating, and I'm at a loss to understand why. I have seen films with equally vulgar, sex-related humor walk away with an easy "R." (The American Pie movies come to mind.) There's nothing groundbreaking about this movie, and slapping an NC-17 on it once again calls into question the means by which the MPAA makes its decisions. Waters, however, probably wears the restrictive rating like a badge of honor. And it's hard to rant too loudly against the MPAA in this case. After all, anything that restricts this movie's audience, thereby saving the money and time of potential viewers, can't be all bad.

Dirty Shame, A (United States, 2004)

Director: John Waters
Cast: Tracey Ullman, Chris Isaak, Johnny Knoxville, Selma Blair, Suzanne Shepherd, Mink Stole
Screenplay: John Waters
Cinematography: Steve Gainer
Music: George S. Clinton
U.S. Distributor: Fine Line Features
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2004-09-24
MPAA Rating: "NC-17" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1