Review by Dustin Putman|
2½ stars out of 4
The cinematic oeuvre of Baltimore-based cult filmmaker John Waters
has always been counted on to deliver a highly off-kilter, often sexually-charged
perspective on any number of topics—serial killing (1994's "Serial
Mom"), artists (1998's "Pecker"), and filmmaking (2000's "Cecil B.
Demented") being his most recent targets—but "A Dirty Shame" goes
one step further, nearly matching the explicit depravity of his reigning
classic, 1972's "Pink Flamingos." The film is, at once, harmlessly
good-natured and as twistedly perverse as any major picture so far
this decade. Writer-director Waters will do anything, and go as far
as he wants to, in his mission to make the viewer simultaneously wince
and cackle with laughter. One might feel a little unclean once the
89-minute freak show is over, but, for the not-easily-offended, this
is certainly one of the most deliriously ballsy comedies to hit screens in years.
Set in the blue-collar Baltimore neighborhood of Harford Road, Sylvia
Stickles (Tracey Ullman) is a no-nonsense, middle-aged drug store
clerk no longer interested in sex with husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak)
and disgusted by her ridiculously large-breasted, exhibitionist daughter,
Caprice (Selma Blair), known fondly around town by the male population
as Ursula Udders. Things suddenly change, however, when Sylvia is
knocked unconscious during a traffic accident, awakening as an insatiable
sex addict. She is promptly taken in by Ray-Ray Perkins (Johnny Knoxville),
the leader of an underground group of sex fiends who have all suffered
freak brain damage. As Sylvia, Ray-Ray, and the rest of their clan
set out to take over the Harford Road area and screw as many people
as they can, angry retaliation comes in the form of the town's "neuters,"
headed by Sylvia's fed-up, crotchety mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd).
The opening half-hour of "A Dirty Shame" is comic gold, a literally
non-stop barrage of brilliantly savage sight gags and hilariously
lewd one-liners. The proceeding hour is more uneven, as things go
from outrageous to downright bizarre and the plotting, which too closely
resembles "Cecil B. Demented" in its look at a group of deviant outcasts,
becomes decidedly scattered. Even when the material doesn't always
work, however, one has to admire John Waters' quirky ambition and
no-holds-barred attitude, He is shameless in his juvenile mindset,
and his joyful onslaught of immorality wears you into submission.
Some of the time—actually, most of the time—you are so in awe at what
you are seeing and hearing that conventional criticism doesn't really apply.
Tracey Ullman (2000's "Small Time Crooks") stands alongside Amy Sedaris
(of Comedy Central's "Strangers with Candy") as one of the most gifted,
incendiary female comics working today, and she is insanely good here
as psychosexual heroine Sylvia Stickles. Ullman sees her every line
delivery and every facial expression as a chance to elicit ribald
laughter from the audience—even her very first line in the film, "I'm
makin' scrapple!," defies description of how funny it is to hear her
say it—and she fearlessly runs with it. She also has a way of making
the rudest of material seem almost innocent, which is the key to Sylvia
Stickles' innate likability. A conversation Ullman shares with Selma
Blair (2004's "Hellboy"), courageously uninhibited as daughter Caprice,
as they bond over their shared sexual appetite, is surprisingly sweet
in the most flagrant form of the word.
Although "A Dirty Shame" warrants the NC-17 rating it receives, at
least in regard to the MPAA's stuffy standards, it is ironic that
part of the core audience who would go wild for the movie—15-to-17-year-olds—have
no chance of seeing it in theaters. Save for the liberal, open-minded,
and John Waters' fans, most adults will need not apply. If you don't
find the sight of Tracey Ullman picking up a water bottle with her
vagina while dancing to the "Hokey-Pokey" at an unsuspecting senior
citizens home funny, and if the very idea of sex addicts corrupting
an entire town in some of the most graphic ways imaginable isn't your
cup of tea, then so be it. A fervent attack of close-vested right-wingers,
and, arguably, the entire Republican Party, writer-director John Waters
rightfully makes no apologies for what he has made. "A Dirty Shame"
is what it is, and, regardless of whether it could be deemed "good"
or "bad" (a case could be made that it is both at the same time),
it is consistently, stomach-churningly watchable.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman