A Dirty Shame

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John Waters has made a career out of being distasteful, but his new film, “A Dirty Shame,” works so hard at it that you’d think the oily old man has lost his touch. Being raunchy shouldn’t be this difficult. Dirty jokes are the EASY ones to come up with. Ask any 7th-grade boy.

This movie is why headache-relief medicine was invented, and I don’t just mean because it has a scene where people head-butt each other for purposes of sexual gratification. It’s a braying, garish movie in which, as usual, Waters has cast actors who think a bad performance is the same as a “campy” one. Some of the supporting roles, I swear, are like watching auditions for community theater.

It is set in the tranquil, decent Baltimore neighborhood of Harford Road. Here lives the Stickles family, sex-hating wife Sylvia (Tracey Ullman), horny husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak) and huge-breasted teenage daughter Caprice (Selma Blair, who is small-breasted in real life). Caprice is kept locked in a room above the garage to prevent her from returning to her previous career as a stripper, which seems to be the only possible vocation for a woman of her, er, magnitude.

While driving to work one day, Sylvia gets whacked in the head with a shovel and instantly becomes a sex addict. Sort of. Johnny Knoxville is involved, I know that. He plays a tow-truck driver named Ray-Ray, who is a sort of Messianic figure to a group of sex addicts who all have different fetishes. Sylvia is the 12th member of his secret little group, and she now has a specific turn-on that I won’t mention here.

As Ray-Ray’s group increases its numbers, the neighborhood gets up in arms over the influx of perversion and tries to drive out the freaks and weirdos — a group that now includes the once-respectable Sylvia Stickles.

Waters’ peculiar brand of social satire is as ham-fisted as ever. He awkwardly twists the plot and characters in whatever directions are necessary to make his broad, MAD Magazine-style points, constantly hammering home how FUNNY and WACKY and OUTRAGEOUS it’s all supposed to be. And of course there’s nothing less outrageous than pointing out how outrageous you are.

Note: The NC-17 rating for this film is absurd. For all the talking about sex they do, there’s no actual sex. There is nudity, but it’s candid, non-sexual stuff — someone answers the door naked, that sort of thing. The dialogue is vulgar, but no more so than many, many R-rated films. The ratings are meaningless when they are applied inconsistently. (Which they are. So they’re meaningless.)

D (1 hr., 29 min.; NC-17, some explicit sexual dialogue, a lot of vulgarity, some non-sexual nudity; as usual, the NC-17 rating is arbitrary, as the film is no worse than many, many R-rated films.)

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