- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, pride and joy and dirty dreams are still surviving on the streets of Baltimore in “A Dirty Shame,” a raunchy and yet oddly sexless comedy from the cinematic provocateur John Waters.

The movie is a taxonomy of fetishes, a kinky Kinseyan survey of what goes on in people’s minds, if not their bedrooms. Mr. Waters may champion free love, but he’s no pornographer. There’s a point here: It’s that consensual erotic behavior, in all its strange varieties, hurts no one — not bodily — and that for all the talk of sex, sex, sex on TV and in movies and magazines, prudishness still reigns in our culture.

On its face, though, “A Dirty Shame” is dirty farce, and Mr. Waters, the writer-director of such camp-cult classics as “Pink Flamingos” and “Serial Mom,” allows no middle ground: On one side are panting sex addicts, and on the other are so-called “neuters,” joyless harridans such as Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd) and Marge (Waters movie vet Mink Stole).

Even the neuters are just one head injury away from chronic sex addiction, as happens to Big Ethel’s daughter, Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), a convenience-store clerk in the blue-collar neighborhood of West Hartford. A “carnal concussion” at the hands of a drive-by shovel ignites her inner Traci Lords.

Where once she fended off husband Vaughn’s (singer Chris Isaak) advances and scolded her exotic-dancer daughter (a curly blond, busty Selma Blair), whose voracious appetites they contain behind padlocked doors, Sylvia is now in perpetual heat herself.

Fatefully, Sylvia is No. 12 in a biblically allusive hormonal wave sweeping West Hartford, a Reagan Democrat ‘hood that tow-truck driver Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), the addicts’ ringleader, is helping turn into a Larry Flynt Democrat locus of peep-show antics and biker-bar morality.

Except that there’s very little Penthousing going on here, the NC-17 rating notwithstanding. Copulation isn’t what interests Mr. Waters, who is a Warholian nonparticipatory sort of social observer. The nudity is comical, and most of the bizarro sex acts are solo. He’s after the marginal perversions people don’t talk about at cocktail parties, the oddities that keep sexual paraphernalia shops in business and the Savage Love column in syndication.

The conceit of the movie is to throw all these private idiosyncrasies into the public square. Mr. Waters has a giddy time with this, as does the cast. Miss Ullman switches from natty to trashy in a nanosecond, and Miss Blair provides a welcome breather to her familiar mirthless-girlfriend character.

The soundtrack, from George S. Clinton, is packed with porno funk and ‘50s-ish rock songs with dirty lyrics, and there’s a lot of intentionally cheesy special effects, but newspaper decorum prevents me from detailing the depravities.

Let’s just say Mr. Waters’ imagination is ripe and leave it at that.

Of course, the neuters and even Vaughn, who complains early on of unmet marital needs, are appalled at what’s happening to their community, and so Big Ethel and Marge go leafleting and organize a “decency rally” in the hope that their fellow citizens will recover their bearings.

Is the movie funny? For a while. Then you get the point. Then you want it to go away.

“A Dirty Shame” wants us not to feel shame. In this, Mr. Waters doesn’t care if the culprit is Catholic guilt or Protestant puritanism.

Of course, sexual inhibitions and taboos have been weakening for half a century now in American life. In this ever-more-permissive environment, Mr. Waters’ polarizing, in-your-face style seems calculated more to incite a backlash than to extend the boundaries of tolerance and foster coexistence.

For the harmless fetishists celebrated here, that’s a darn shame.

**

TITLE: “A Dirty Shame”

RATING: NC-17 (Graphic sexuality, nudity, profanity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by John Waters. Produced by Ted Hope and Christine Vachon. Cinematography by Steve Gainer. Score by George S. Clinton.

RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.adirtyshamemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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