A Dirty Shame

I've been a huge fan of John Waters since the moment I heard that he made a film where for the final scene, the lead actress—a 300-pound drag queen—ate dog shit live on camera. After spending the whole decade of the 1970s making a series of underground films each more obscene, trashy and hilarious than the last, John Waters suddenly and unexpectedly went mainstream, helming films like Cry Baby and Serial Mom, which were still campy and offbeat, but appealed to a much wider audience. Now, on the eve of the breakthrough success of the Broadway musical version of his 1988 hit film Hairspray, John Waters makes a calculated move back into obscenity and audience-baiting, with the NC-17 rated A Dirty Shame. The premise of the film is pretty simple: Tracy Ullman plays Sylvia Stickles: a normal housewife in an upper-lower class Baltimore neighborhood who gets whacked on the head and becomes a raging sex addict. This sets in motion a conflict between a religious cult of sex addicts led by Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville) and the normal, sex-hating neighbors, who proudly refer to themselves as "neuters." The plot exists merely as an excuse for Waters to pack in as much juvenile potty-humor, sexual euphemisms and pet fetishes as possible. The movie revels in its own bad production values, from trashy set design to terrible CGI effects. Good performances are truly beside the point for actors in any John Waters film, as the script basically consists of a series of monumental declarations and absurd monologues in which every word is viciously screamed. The real value of a John Waters film is the laughs and the groans, and this film has plenty of both. I learned about sexual fetishes I hadn't been aware of previously, including mysophilia (sexual attraction to dirt and germs), and lots of old favorites like autoerotic asphyxiation, infantilism and "bears." There's a great scene where Sylvia picks up a plastic water bottle using a method I've only ever seen at a Tijuana donkey show. Waters also includes an affectionate homage to the late, great director Russ Meyer with the character of Ursula Udders (Selma Blair) the prodigiously endowed stripper desperate to escape her past. There is also some startlingly blasphemous material here, seemingly tailored as a response to The Passion of Mel Gibson, as the head sex-addict Ray-Ray eventually takes on Christlike qualities, healing the blind and walking on water. In the final analysis, it seems that this particular assemblage of scatological jokes doesn't hold together nearly as well as John Waters' best work (see Female Trouble or Pink Flamingos), but the film still has a manic energy and infectious joy that make for a very entertaining trip to the local arthouse or gay porn theater.