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With: Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Selma Blair, Chris Isaak, Mink Stole, Patricia Hearst, David Hasselhoff
Written by: John Waters
Directed by: John Waters
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for pervasive sexual content
Running Time: 89
Date: 09/12/2004

A Dirty Shame (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Let's Go Sexin'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

We can no longer ignore the paradox of seeing John Waters movies in the age of the Farrelly Brothers. Clearly the Farrellys could not have existed without Waters, but what is the difference between the two? The Farrellys desperately want the audience to love their characters, while John Waters doesn't give a rip if we love them or not. So long as we know that he loves them. It's, very basically, the difference between a showman and an artist.

A Dirty Shame is Waters' twelfth feature film in his nearly 35-plus year career. In some ways he's still the same old Waters, but in other ways he's matured a bit. Certainly he's come a long way from his reprehensible Pink Flamingos, which seems to hate its lowlife characters; it's only good as a circus geek show. If you liked Pink Flamingos and felt that Waters sold out as early as Polyester (1981), the odds are that you'll find A Dirty Shame lacking.

But, for those of us who love Serial Mom and Pecker, A Dirty Shame is purely enjoyable on a truly subversive level. And for those who wonder why they don't make those lovely Doris Day movies anymore, well, A Dirty Shame is liable to offend more than just a little.

Tracy Ullman plays Sylvia Sickles, a frumpy housewife who doesn't have the time or the inclination for sex with her husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak). Likewise, she's ashamed of her frontally gifted daughter Caprice (Selma Blair) who must have a seriously hard time finding clothing that fits. Before she was arrested for indecent exposure for her third time, she danced at a bar under the name of Ursula Udders.

Meanwhile, a mechanic named Ray-Ray Perkins (Johnny Knoxville) appears and suddenly everyone seems interested in sex. When Sylvia suffers a blow to the head, she joins them and discovers that she's one of the twelve apostles of sex, in search of a whole new kind of orgasm.

The rest of the conservative townsfolk, dubbed "neuters," don't like this behavior and begin organizing anti-sex rallies and everything comes to a head on one sex-filled night.

Waters may seem a little out of date or a little redundant to some; certainly A Dirty Shame doesn't flat-out shock like some of the more recent teen comedies. It doesn't have anything quite like Jason Biggs' carnal relationship with a pastry, for example. Even Ullman scooping up a bottle using only her private area doesn't raise many eyebrows.

But the film works as a happily offensive whole. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Waters isn't interested in inserting a few shock gags into an otherwise ordinary plot that peters out in the final third. He wants the whole magilla.

On the technical end, Waters still more or less just points and shoots. But this can often result in a refreshing mise-en-scene, offering luxurious, long takes rather than choppy edits.

Nor is he interested in coaxing great performances from his actors (though he has, in the past, with Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom and Christina Ricci in Pecker). However, he's the only director who can truly appreciate a hack like Johnny Knoxville, as the talent-less reject from a reality show he really is. Knoxville joins alumni like Patty Hearst, Mink Stole and washed-up beach movie star Tab Hunter, none of whom would have any kind of career if not for Waters. (Another Waters vet, Ricki Lake, went on to host a talk show, a fact that probably pleases Waters to no end.)

Undoubtedly, the movie's greatest achievement lies in its collection of dirty novelty songs, all of which are real ("Let's Go Sexin'" is the film's only new song). These ditties include "The Pussy Cat Song" by Connie Vannett, "Tony's Got Hot Nuts" by Faye Richmonde, "Eager Beaver Baby" by Johnny Burnette, and so on.

In the end, A Dirty Shame is not much more offensive than one of those old decks of cards with nude women on them. It's mixed with charm and kitsch and nostalgia. That's the key to enjoying Waters, and if you're tuned in to this unique wavelength, it's great fun.

DVD Details: New Line's 2005 DVD comes with the essential and always entertaining John Waters commentary track; he's one of the masters of the format. We also get a second track by several members of the crew, trailers for other John Waters films (including Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Pecker) and a feature-length making-of documentary. Best of all, it offers the original NC-17 version and not a Blockbuster-safe "R" rated edit. All in all, it's an excellent disc. New Line has also issued a new John Waters box set including six early films, A Dirty Shame and a new, exclusive bonus disc.

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