A Dirty Shame

Diehard John Waters fans who've been lamenting the director's detour in recent years from his subversive bad-taste roots into tamer territory will be appeased by gleeful filth and outrageousness. A protracted one-joke affair that strays into undisciplined chaos. Fine Line could initially draw perverse pleasure-seekers to the NC-17 release.

Diehard John Waters fans who’ve been lamenting the director’s detour in recent years from his subversive bad-taste roots into tamer territory will be appeased by the gleeful filth and outrageousness of “A Dirty Shame.” Sweet-naturedly lewd comedy about a frazzled Baltimore housewife turned raving nymphomaniac is frequently hilarious but ultimately is a protracted one-joke affair that strays into undisciplined chaos. Goosed by a terrific trailer, Fine Line could initially draw perverse pleasure-seekers to the NC-17 release. But without the Viagra of the midnight movie circuit the trashmeister once called home, enduring cultdom seems unlikely.

Performed by a game cast led by Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville and Selma Blair, the comedy is based on the bizarre fact that severe concussion victims have been known to suffer the side-effect of uncontrollable carnal lust. Waters has stitched this phenomenon into a story in which a cult of sex addicts — whose head injuries have prompted each to give free rein to their particular brand of perversion — sets out to gain control of Baltimore’s low-rent Harford Road.

Repressed and irritable Sylvia Stickles (Ullman) juggles homemaker duties with hours logged at the convenience store she runs with her husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak), whose unfulfilled sexual needs are merely another source of annoyance. Even more distasteful is the wave of unbridled lust overtaking the neighborhood, from horndog neighbors to a family of gay “bears” to a lustful biker begging for access to Sylvia’s daughter Caprice (Blair), who is under house arrest for nude and disorderly charges. A go-go dancer with “criminally enlarged” breasts, Caprice is known by the professional name Ursula Udders.

En route to the store one day, Sylvia gets a knock to the head in an auto accident and is attended to by passing tow truck driver Ray-Ray Perkins (Knoxville). Soon revealed to be a sexual healer, Ray-Ray heads a band of devotees of which Sylvia is the 12th apostle, her arrival heralding the discovery of an illuminating new sex act.

Shedding her prudishness and improvising a slutty makeover of leopard print and heels, Sylvia storms the neighborhood in her insatiable quest for cunnilingual nirvana, ordering delighted Vaughn to “discover the oyster” before shopping further afield for “pink steel.” Her sexual rampage prompts Sylvia’s uptight mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd) and sanctimonious neighbor Marge (Mink Stole) to step up their decency campaign, calling for “neuter pride.”

Like the director’s last outing, “Cecil B. Demented,” the setup gives way more to messy narrative anarchy than to any skilled elaboration and resolution of the flimsy plot. However, there’s something to be said for the consistency of Waters’ defiantly unrefined style, not to mention a certain naive charm in the ’50s B-movie playfulness as the carnal conquerors disrupt a sex addicts anonymous meeting and face off against the do-gooders in time-honored alien-takeover fashion.

Tempered by the endearing sweetness that has colored all of Waters’ films since “Hairspray,” this is a long way from the unapologetic depravity of the man who chronicled the title battle for “Filthiest Person Alive.” But it’s nonetheless far more ripe and ribald than the director’s recent output would seem to indicate. And in the year of “The Passion of the Christ,” any movie that ushers in the “Resursexion” with religious fervor is bound to raise eyebrows. While the NC-17 tag is no surprise given that every imaginable sexual proclivity is cataloged , the mostly inexplicit , tongue-in-cheek treatment makes the classification seem somewhat extreme.

Like Kathleen Turner in “Serial Mom,” Ullman is a terrific sport, torn between carnal rapture and bouts of self-castigation induced by subsequent concussions, during which she vents at the tyranny of her “axis of evil.” Though the film makes disappointingly scant use of the Brit transplant’s talent for nailing the foibles of American kooks, there’s a jaw-dropping fascination in watching her frumpy hausfrau twitch with lust as she horrifies the residents of her mother-in-law’s retirement home.

Wielding melon-like prosthetic appendages that would make Russ Meyer salivate, Blair is no less fearless. And there’s also a nicely played mother-daughter bonding thread, with sex and concussion bringing Sylvia and Caprice closer together . Perhaps the real revelation is Knoxville, however, who appears most effortlessly to get with the Waters program. The actor’s cultivated mix of charismatic sexiness and low-life attitude make him the perfect fit for the erotic evangelist.

Production values are typical of Waters fare, with long-term collaborator Vincent Peranio creating a suitably tawdry version of blue collar suburbia. Digital work is on the shamelessly cheesy side, from horny squirrels to fornicating flora. Sex-related buzzwords flash at intervals across the screen, followed by archival footage inserts of hoochie dancers and other period eromaniacs. Biggest off-camera asset is the vintage song score of bawdy, double entendre-laden nuggets, including “The Pussy Cat Song,” “Hump-a-Baby,” “Tony’s Got Hot Nuts,” “Eager Beaver Baby” and “Itchy Twitchy Spot.”

A Dirty Shame

  • Production: A Fine Line Features release of a This Is That, Killer Films, John Wells production in association with City Lights Pictures. Produced by Christine Vachon, Ted Hope. Executive producers, Mark Ordesky, Mark Kaufman, Merideth Finn, John Wells, the Fisher Brothers. Co-producer, Anne Ruark. Co-executive producers, Michael Almog, Bob Jason. Directed, written by John Waters.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Steve Gainer; editor, Jeffrey Wolf; music, George S. Clinton; music supervisor, Tracy McKnight; production designer, Vincent Peranio; art director, Halina Gebarowicz; set decorator, Susan Kessel; costume designer, Van Smith; sound (Dolby Digital), Rick Angelella; special effects coordinator, Drew Jiritano; visual effects supervisor, Mark Dornfeld; visual effects/digital opticals, Custom Film Effects; assistant director, Shelley Ziegler; casting/associate producer, Pat Moran. Reviewed at Disney screening room, New York, Aug. 17, 2004. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: NC-17. Running time: 89 MIN.
  • With: Sylvia Stickles - Tracey Ullman Ray-Ray Perkins - Johnny Knoxville Caprice Stickles - Selma Blair Vaughn Stickles - Chris Isaak Big Ethel - Suzanne Shepherd Marge the Neuter - Mink Stole Paige - Patricia Hearst Dora - Jackie Hoffman <b>With:</b> Wes Johnson, Susan Allenbach, Paul DeBoy, Jewel Orem, James Ransone, Alan J. Wendl, Jonas Grey, David Hasselhoff.