A Dirty Shame

Let’s go sexin’

By David B. Grelck
October 05, 2004

Perhaps the most shocking thing about John Waters’ newest shock-fest actually has nothing to do with the images and ideas that he’s burned onto celluloid. It’s simply that I was able to convince my wife to come along to downtown Evanston, Illinois to see the damned thing. Even more shocking was that she didn’t follow through on our mutual prediction that she would hate it immensely. She was agreeable if annoyed through Cecil B. Demented, she said things like “I can see why you like it,” about Serial Mom and perhaps only truly enjoyed Hairspray out of the select handful of Waters films she’s seen. For her, “Better than I thought” is praise indeed.

As for me. . .well, he’s made better, much better, but he’s also made much worse. I know, that really doesn’t mean too much as he did in fact make the brilliant Serial Mom and the monstrosityMondo Trasho. A Dirty Shame, his twelfth film falls right about in the middle of his works. Right about on par with Pecker actually. And this one I enjoyed right off the bat.

So, the surreal plot has a normal everyday average street in Baltimore. The residents have been noticing a creepy perverted vibe rolling in. Sylvia Stickle (Tracey Ullman) is uninterested in sex with husband Vaughan (against type Chris Isaak) and presumably sex in general until she gets whacked on the head by an errant garden implement and becomes a sex addict under the guidance of Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville), a sex-healer with Jesus-like powers and eleven following apostles. No, really. He has it in his head that Sylvia, the newest and number twelve is the one that will guide the group to perversions that have never been found before.

Surrounding this central story is a pretty typical crop of Waters supporting characters. The “criminally endowed” daughter of Sylvia and Vaughan, Caprice (Selma Blair) who was known as Ursula Udders at the strip bar she worked before she got arrested for several counts of nude various activities including nude drunk driving and is now locked in her room above the garage with a government issued ankle bracelet. Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepard), Sylvia’s mother and the leader of the town crusade against perversity is hilarious in her desperate attempt to keep her town together. Waters regular (and my personal favorite) Mink Stole plays yet another prude as she has ever since Waters went mainstream with Hairspray, but she has more to do in this film than she did in Cecil B. Demented and Pecker combined. She gives it her all and one wishes Waters would cast her as one last villain before he closes up shop in the strange world he inhabits. Patty Hearst plays a sex addict. Ricky Lake’s show plays on TV. Cameos that only the true avid Waters followers will notice are Channing Wilroy, butler in Pink Flamingos, Mary Vivian Pearce (looking a little worse for wear after her stroke), and the zeppelin like Jean Hill who, as she weighed well over 300 pounds in 1977 and still does, it’s a wonder she’s lived this long. I was shocked to see her, surely.

As the film plays out, the town gradually gets more and more infected with perversity as concussions abound. I’ll admit, when Sylvia finally brings the new sex act, never before done, it was a little (pardon the pun) anti-climactic and, well, stupid. But Waters makes up for that with the cameo of the decade in David Hasselhoff and Johnny Knoxville’s climax (pun intended.) As with many of his films, you either get the joke or are left shaking your head wondering why on earth Fine Line Features would release a piece of garbage like this. I’ll admit, not only do I get the joke, but I revel in it. Perhaps I’m a little too lenient when it comes to Waters. Though, watching this film, I laughed quite a few times, as did my wife. The jokes come fast and, while there are as many stupid moments as there are great ones, one can forgive that as the film has an absurd joy about it. That’s perhaps what separates this from his early works. Back in the seventies, he was making UGLY filth. Eating dog crap. Sex with a crucifix. Shooting up on an altar. Things of that ilk. These days, one might complain he’s a bit more tame. And that’s true. But he’s also a lot more fun. What surprised me most about the film is how much I enjoyed the gimmick of Ray Ray’s abilities. As a sex healer he can make the blind see and the dead rise. Like a perverted savior he, in the end, does let the town truly be free of their inhibitions and revel in their bizarre but non-dangerous perversions.

All in all, I’ll give this three out of five cookies. Enjoyable. I’ll watch it again. I’ll buy the DVD, though more for the man’s commentary than the movie itself. And I want to know what a plate job is. And he promised in an interview to tell us on the DVD. Waters fans, seek this one out. Others, perhaps you should cross the street before you get some on you. This should not be your introduction to his oeuvre.