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A Dirty Shame
Sexed-up, Subversive Laughs
by Anhoni Patel on Sep 25, 2004
The opening scenes of John Waters' latest and greatest film, A Dirty Shame, reveals an uptight, high-strung woman in need of rest and relaxation, and her amorous husband is more than willing to assist her in that area. But she adamantly refuses as it's not even noon, and only perverts do it in the light of day. You see, she's a 'neuter' and she'd be damned if she would succumb to any filthy carnal desires on her way to work. Unlike her sexed-up exhibitionist daughter who's ready and willing any time of the day, and who she has been forced to lock up for her own safety. Such are the divisions in the Hartford Road area in Baltimore, Waters' beloved hometown, or at least his version of it.
Tracey Ullman plays Sylvia, a bitter mother and wife and an upright citizen of the community, of which there are an increasing few. You see, something fishy's going on in the neighborhood. People are doing it like crazy and homosexuals are moving into town! There's public fornication, and the mail isn't being delivered because the mailman is too busy masturbating. Shocked and appalled, Sylvia is wondering just what has gotten into people? Well, they have concussions.
After spotting an article on head injuries, and zoning in on the one titillating factoid (as only a subversive filmmaker could do), Waters discovered that certain concussion sufferers had a significant increase in their libidos; thus, he formulated his next cinematic vehicle. In A Dirty Shame, the clumsy Hartford Road sex addicts aren't sick, they've been liberated. Their guide in this new world of sexual freedom is car mechanic Ray Ray (played by evil deliciousness by none other than MTV's original Jackass Mr. Johnny Knoxville). When Sylvia herself gets thwacked in the head, sexual healer and demigod Ray Ray is there to service her. She soon discovers that she is akin to the thirteenth apostle among the other "sexed-up" concussion sufferers in the community, a position in which she's not exactly comfortable.
In classic, depraved Waters' style, he explores sexual fetishes in detail (parts of the movie read like an obscure fetishes guide and a Freudian smorgasbord of conditions), and how members of these groups have been marginalized by the rest of 'decent' society. On Hartford Road, the line between what is decent, or "neutered", and perverse is thin. The director questions the religious right and celebrates the polymorphously perverse. He pays homage to those classic films of yore exploring sexual seduction and shame (!). Indeed, most of A Dirty Shame has a distinctive pulp quality.
There are numerous witty and salacious jokes that will have you roaring with laughter; A Dirty Shame is scandalously funny. Arguably the best of Waters' filmmaking is seen here -- there is snappy and smart dialogue, outrageous sex scenes, biting social commentary, and campy sitcom musak, last heard during a lost Leave It To Beaver episode, along with rockabilly tunes full of double entendres. Furthermore, this is the only movie this reviewer has ever seen with blatant subliminal messages such as an aptly placed "W-H-O-R-E".
Ullman is insane -- this woman is fearless. This is best illustrated in a scene in which Sylvia and her naïve hubby Vaughn (Chris Isaak, didn't he used to be a singer?) visit his aging mother in the nursing home where they join in a rousing round of The Hokey Pokey. Sylvia, in her heated-up state, gets a bit carried away as she jumps into the circle, flashes some groin-grinding moves and then proceeds to perform a demanding trick involving her vagina and a water bottle. Needless to say, the seniors were shocked. Selma Blair as her daughter Caprice, aka Ursula Udders, spots the biggest boob job this side of the Mississippi, and is just as daring. Her wayward exhibitionism is both charming and endearing. Lastly, Suzanne Shepherd as Big Ethel, Sylvia's neuter mother, has a standout performance.
A Dirty Shame is John Waters' funniest movie ever, chock full of campy fabulosity and over-the-top antics. Although, like all his films, it reaches a crescendo of absolute absurd proportions, it is still fantastic and part of the whole John Waters experience.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
by Anhoni Patel on Sep 25, 2004