A Dirty Shame (2004) Movie Review

A Dirty Shame

Title: A Dirty Shame
Year: 2004
Genre: Comedy
Play time: 1h 29min
Director: John Waters
Screenwriters: John Waters
Starring: Tracey Ullman, Chris Isaak, Selma Blair

“My movies are my crimes and I get paid to commit them,”

goes the notorious quote by John Waters, and A Dirty Shame, his newest film, certainly wants to give that pronouncement some legitimacy. Slapped with the oh-so-naughty NC-17 rating — though the film is so comparatively tame that Waters must have begged for it — it wants very much to make us giggle with embarrassment, blink with surprise, and absorb its political message in the process. But as there’s really only one joke and nothing that even begins to push the limits of what we’ve seen in gross-out teen comedies, the movie isn’t edgy or shocking, just tiring.

Capturing the Attention of the two Sides in A Dirty Shame

Waters is clearly attempting quasi-political satire, but his approach mostly involves broadly caricaturing both sides of the debate and seeing what sticks. At issue here is society’s attitude toward sex, and the admittedly peculiar practice of stifling and repressing sexual expression in the name of “decency.” Those forces are manifested here as a group of concerned citizens who’ve had about enough of the lewdness that has overtaken their town of Hartford, Connecticut — they want to bring about “the end of tolerance.” “We’re all neuters, and we’ll never be not normal,” they yell.

Frankly, I didn’t blame the neuters, because if they’re merely cruel stereotypes of the religious right and their ilk, their opponents are completely psychotic. Having decided that a strong bump to the head can bring about a sexual awakening, they go around trying to “share the gift.” Aside from becoming sexaholics, the recipients of this blessing also discover a fetish, such as regressing to an infant state or indulging in “the erotic urge to dump food in your private area.”

Ullman’s Spectacular Physical Comic Performance

For a while, I just coasted on the appropriately deranged performance by Tracey Ullman as the mostly frigid housewife who suddenly becomes a sex maniac. Ullman is obviously a spectacular physical comic, and she brings an infectious energy to even Waters’ most puerile and idiotic gags, such as her dance of passion in the middle of a nursing home, culminating in a fairly spectacular genital stunt. She is surrounded by a few other very game performers, including a hysterical Suzanne Shepherd as Big Ethel, the infuriated matriarch who leads the conservative rebellion. Selma Blair may be overshadowed by her gigantic prosthetic breasts, but at least she wears them with some physical grace.

Less effective is Johnny Knoxville as the prophet of the sexual revolution. A movie this gonzo can’t really afford any self-consciousness lest it lose us entirely, and Knoxville doesn’t believe in this material. He wants so badly to wink at us, to take himself out of the movie, and while I get the feeling that Waters did his damnedest to keep this impulse at bay, the actor’s heart is just not in it. This kind of silliness requires conviction.

A Dirty Shame – Comedy That’s Fifty Years Late to be Groundbreaking

Not that it matters, really, since this silliness wouldn’t have been amusing for very long no matter the casting. By the halfway point, I began to tire of even Ullman; the shtick gets old, the political point gets beaten into the ground, and all that’s left is a comedy that’s about fifty years too late to be groundbreaking. Waters can flash “V-A-G-I-N-A” and “H-O-R-N-Y” across the screen as many times as he wants, but he I doubt he’ll faze too many people. It’s just childish.

It bears repeating, too, just how inane the political allegory is in A Dirty Shame. Waters distorts everyone in the debate beyond recognition and makes everyone equally insufferable; it would be nice if I could believe that characterizing the extreme positions like this was part of the point, but Waters is manifestly not making the argument that both sides are equally obnoxious. And so, in his efforts to shock and make fun, he accomplishes nothing. So many significant films have to be edited to get an R rating, that this seems like a waste of a precious NC-17.

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