New Line // 2004 // 88 Minutes // Rated NC-17
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // June 14th, 2005
Let's go sexin'!
A Dirty Shame promises the return of "old school" John Waters. It is slapped with an NC-17 rating, stars Jackass legend Johnny Knoxville, and has a tag line that states "out to threaten the very limits of common decency." For years, hardcore Waters fans have accused the once-guerrilla filmmaker of selling out to glossy Hollywood fluff. In the past, he got Divine to eat dog excrement off a Baltimore street, and showcased a singing asshole at a barbecue outside a trailer home. Then came musicals with Johnny Depp, Ricki Lake as his new muse, and a parade of stars who seemed unwilling to go to the lengths Waters and his crew regularly did back in their halcyon days outside the studio system. But it's true -- the hippies became yuppies, and Waters became a Hollywood icon with a hit Broadway musical. Will A Dirty Shame resurrect the revolution that started with Pink Flamingos, or are we in for just another rehash of Cecil B. Demented? Will it be as tasteless and nasty as Desperate Living, or are we in for another twee, sweet ride like Pecker?
A Dirty Shame treads on familiar John Waters ground. Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) is a prudish convenience store worker living in Baltimore's Hartford Road area. She has a somewhat happy (if undersexed) marriage with her hubby (Chris Isaak, Fire Walk With Me), and trouble with her surrealistic, big-breasted, go-go dancing daughter (Selma Blair, Hellboy). The neighborhood falls into turmoil as the residents realize a perverse element is moving into the serene suburb -- lesbians, nudists, and bears, oh my! Sylvia and her co-worker Big Ethel are planning a rally for decency, and encourage other "neuters" to join their cause. But then Sylvia gets hit on the head by a lawn mower on a truck that passes her after she is stranded without gas. The bump on her melon throws her libido into overdrive, and a tow truck driver named Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville) shows up to "service" her. Soon Sylvia realizes she is a sex addict, and proclaims herself a cunnilingus "bottom." Ray Ray is revealed as a sexual savior who is assembling twelve apostles to preach the perverse gospel of sexual fetish freedom to the horny masses. He realizes Sylvia is his twelfth apostle, and tells her she will invent a new sex act that will win the revolution for them. But can Sylvia stay a sex addict when Big Ethel, the other neuters, and her husband are out to cure her before it's too late?
A Dirty Shame ends up being a perverse mix of good old fashioned trademark Waters gross out and his new aesthetic of Hollywood slickness and subservience. It is not a return to form as so many hoped, but it's also a lot more edgy than some of his previous efforts. It's a new hybrid of the old John with the new Waters. It has many joyous moments to counterbalance the disappointment of realizing nobody can ever really go home again -- even when you never left Baltimore. It's a movie that happily takes its place as the bridge between Hairspray and Pink Flamingos. The real burning question we're left with is -- who will be happiest with it?
The good news is it's a raunchy time, with wit and plain juvenile humor mixed together in a messy fetish exploitation film. Waters was surprised with the NC-17 rating for his self-proclaimed "cunnilingus comedy," since there are no true sex scenes to be found anywhere in A Dirty Shame. The rating came about primarily because of the constant sexual talk between the characters. You'll learn terms you never wanted to know, like "Roman shower," "plate job," "blossom," and "mesophilia." To catalog or define any of these terms would ruin half the fun of watching the movie -- but trust me. no matter how twisted you think you are, you'll never see some of these coming in a million years. Waters has done extensive research on fetishes, and he's all too happy to share what he's found. His merry band of sex addicts have something up their sleeve to freak out everyone, and they do it in a safe innocuous way that will still leave you reeling at the absurdity of what some people will do to get off. It really is the "Noah's Ark" of perversity -- I couldn't recall a fetish that isn't called out to in some way, shape, or fashion.
The cast is one of the best Waters has ever assembled, and they are having an orgy of good times. Johnny Knoxville is freaking brilliant in this film. Waters courted him for years after seeing him on Jackass; his devotion and affection for Johnny paid off in the end result. This is the movie that will go down in history as the moment Mr. Knoxville transitioned from sideshow stunt carnie to bona fide leading man. He's sexy and funny, and a force to be reckoned with as Ray Ray. You'll never forget the finale scene when his trouser snake appears and he prepares for his big cum shot. Tracey Ullman is hilarious -- and the perfect Waters heroine, because she is fearless. Whether she's acting morally outraged, or picking up water bottles with her vagina in an old folks home, she commits 110 percent. I giggled when she even provides the demonic voice to her own pussy in an homage to the talking cervix classic Chatterbox. Selma Blair may have been a mutant in Hellboy, but here she gets to sport a blockbuster set of jugs that would make Pam Anderson feel extremely flat-chested. Blair is having a ball with her boobs, and her fun is infectious. Suzanne Shepherd (The Sopranos, Requiem for a Dream) gives an inspired turn as Big Ethel, even though legend has it that she almost had a nervous breakdown when she first read the script. Chris Isaak shows that he can handle almost anything by appearing as the poor schlub stuck in the middle of all this madness. All the usual suspects line up for brief appearances in A Dirty Shame, to: Mink Stole, Patricia Hearst, Ricki Lake, Mary Vivian Pierce, and a whole host of Waters regulars too numerous to name.
The DVD New Line has produced for A Dirty Shame is fully loaded with extras. First up is a feature-length featurette on the movie, which clocks in at over an hour and twenty minutes. It is exhaustive in its depth, and covers cast and crew quite nicely. Also included are two commentaries, even though the box only lists one. John Waters is absolutely one of the best commentary artists in the business, and he does a hysterical narration of his own film that you can't skip. He's done commentaries for every one of his movies, and they are always worth the price of the DVD. In addition to the Waters commentary, we also get an unusual commentary from the heads of the production departments, who relate their takes on the film without it being shown to them. Oddly, they have edited it so well that is often screen-specific without the participants even having seen the end movie. Trailers and some DVD-ROM features round out the disc, including a script-to-screen comparison and a glossary of dirty terms.
The transfer is solid. I doubt Waters uses high-tech or expensive film stock or cameras, and he often shoots on the fly. So some of the film looks a little off, but it is never the fault of the fine transfer, which offers few problems. The sound mix is a robust surround track that works well either in stereo or full surround.
Are you ready for the bad news? With all this raving you might think I am proclaiming this "The best John Waters film ever!" I am a long-time fan, and I certainly enjoyed the heck out of A Dirty Shame, but it has its flaws. The script has two problems. First off, it feels like a retread of Cecil B. Demented, with fetish enthusiasts substituted for film freaks. The whole sequence in Ray Ray's hideout (and the idea of the sexual liberators) has a deja vu feeling in that it hearkens back to Cecil introducing Melanie Griffith to his gang. The second problem is exactly like the Waters film it imitates: A Dirty Shame overstays its welcome and has a lackluster ending. I felt Cecil B. Demented fell apart in the last sequence, and damned if this one doesn't do exactly the same thing. Waters always seems to come up with an outrageous set-up, only to paint himself into a corner with no real ending. The film runs a brief eighty-eight minutes, but it still feels awfully long in the tooth once it limps across the finish line.
A Dirty Shame will divide both camps of John Waters fans. The people who love the more commercial films, like Hairspray, Pecker or Serial Mom, will find this too crude and puerile for their tastes. And the people rallying for another Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble will find it too restrained. It won't end up as a musical, but it still feels safer than efforts from the early days. Back when the Dreamland crew made guerrilla movies, they were all fearless. Actors would appear in sex scenes, and there was a feeling nothing was sacred. But here, all the dangerous material is left to the peripheral characters. Chris Isaak, Selma Blair, and Tracey Ullman seem to be sealed in a bubble that prevents them from having to do any nudity or anything remotely gross for real (aside from Ullman's bottle trick). Waters has basically cow-towed to celebrity demands, when he really should be terrorizing them with threats of "Eat this now or leave my movie!" This movie offers us too little of the charm of Waters mainstream movies, and not enough of the gross carnie atmosphere of his earliest efforts. In trying to appease everyone it becomes too middle of the road. The only fans who will wholly embrace the aesthetic are the ones who love everything he does, no matter what.
And now for the infamous and dreaded two versions warning. A Dirty Shame will be released in two cuts -- the original all-out theatrical version, and a "sanitized for your protection" edition for Blockbuster and Wal-Mart. Check your boxes carefully, because I know of no John Waters fan who would want the "neuter-approved" copy. I imagine most of the cuts will have to be around some of the more blue dialogue, and some scenes will be missing their payoff. Also gone will be the occasional flashes of full frontal male and female nudity (all bit players -- giggle at the irony). The R-rated cut will be approved by Waters, but it will certainly only be a ploy to get the major retail chains to carry the film. Maybe to avoid confusion they should call the edit A Not so Dirty Shame. Nothing like some big corporations to enforce censorship. Grrrrr!
What's an aging revolutionary filmmaker to do? A Dirty Shame is a strange brew of the perverse and the safe, and really shows the crossroads that John Waters has come to. When Divine ate dog doo in a street at the end of Pink Flamingos, the whole world gagged with him as he revealed his turd-eating grin. Several decades later, we've seen it all. Waters could conceivably even blame his leading man from this movie, Johnny Knoxville, for pushing the gross envelope to the stratosphere it's reached. Waters has always made outsider films that spoke to outsider culture, but now he is finally firmly planted in the inner circle of his own icon. He can only produce something like A Dirty Shame, which rests on the edge but never quite sets new highs in absurdity or gross-out. For that you need a new generation, like Trey Parker and Matt Stone, or whoever else comes along to claim the old "Filthiest Person Alive" title that used to follow John's name. He's stuck somewhere between two worlds, and his credibility now stops him from ever again going gonzo.
But here's the thing. Even with its flaws, A Dirty Shame is an entertaining movie with an agenda. The MPAA was so outraged with the film, it said that the film would end up being 10 minutes long if it were cut down to get an "R" rating. It's not that over the top, and God bless John Waters for making a movie this sex-crazed in the middle of the Bush years (no fair giggling at that double entendre). Even if Waters has been upstaged by Jackass and South Park, he is still pushing buttons. Even decades after he has gone mainstream, he recognizes how silly and uptight America really is. We need him now more than ever, and that makes this silly little sex comedy elevated in cultural significance. It may not be as audacious and outrageous as Pink Flamingos, but it's still pissing off a lot of prudish people. And I have to tilt my glass to the man for that.
I had a really good time with A Dirty Shame despite its flaws. It's funny, it's gross, and it marks the first appearance of CGI effects in a Waters film. The movie is a natural progression for the man as an artist. It's not perfect, but it is assured. Despite the fact that many people are cruder, Waters knows how to handle his own material. When the movie fires on all cylinders it hums like a well-oiled machine; if it sputters, it's still enjoyable in some strange way. Waters experimenting and not quite succeeding is far more interesting than most other directors hitting the nail on the head. A Dirty Shame is not the prophesized "second coming," but it is a return to form in many ways. It's the cross-breeding of old and new Waters that makes it fascinating.
A Dirty Shame is fine naughty fun when you're in the right mood or frame of mind. It certainly isn't for everyone -- but after decades of films, you should know where you stand with Waters by now. The cast is awesome, the jokes are raunchy, and thanks to all its fetish glee, you can forgive the weak finish. I don't doubt one day John Waters will reclaim his title as the ultimate purveyor of filth on the planet, but until he does this one is a fine way to bide your time. It's a mixed bag of filth and fluff, but nobody can deliver this kind of stuff with as much panache as Waters and this cast. It's a whole lot of fun no matter how you slice it.
A Dirty Shame is guilty of being a nasty little joke that prattles on a little too long without a climax, but it's also the grossest, funniest thing Waters has produced in many a year. The cast is sentenced to probation for lewd behavior, and Selma Blair needs to do community service for those big hooters she teases us with. New Line gives us a sexy transfer and loads of extras, so they're off the hook completely. Now let's get out of this stuffy courthouse and all...GO SEXIN'!
Review content copyright © 2005 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated NC-17
* Commentary by Director John Waters
* Commentary by Production Staff
* Feature-length Featurette: All the Dirt on A Dirty Shame
* Deleted Scene
* Dreamland News
* Senses of Cinema Profile of Waters