For most of the college students likely to read this review, the awkward – inexorable – hours of elementary school sex education are still relatively fresh in memory. Of course, the class itself usually bore a labored, euphemistic title: “Human Relations,” “Growth and Development” or “Health.” The materials tended to be clunky and vague generic photocopied handouts that were supplemented by aging VHS (or possibly Beta) tapes, which raised more questions than they answered. As if in response to this universal ordeal, John Waters created “A Dirty Shame,” a film so exuberant and non-euphemistic in its depiction of the seamy underbelly of human sexuality that none of its viewers will be left with hands raised.
Followers of Waters’ career will undoubtedly see this latest outing as an attempt to break out of a relatively tame phase. The assessment is close to the mark, though masterstrokes such as casting former child prodigy Alicia Witt as an “anal porn star” in 2000’s “Cecil B. DeMented” prove that the director’s edge never dulled entirely. Even the film’s tagline, “Threatening the very limits of common decency,” looks less like a teaser than a mission statement. Ever since the release of “Pink Flamingos” – Waters’ geek-show-on-celluloid and personal low-taste watermark – nearly 32 years ago, the so-nicknamed “Pope of Trash” has carried a reputation of being grotesque. “A Dirty Shame” is a valiant effort to live up to Water’s legendary track record.
Though not exactly a polished affair, Waters’ “Cecil B. DeMented,” was nevertheless an entertaining movie. The film depicts the exploits of a ragtag gang of filmmakers and their grungy, charismatic leader who – pushed too far by the blandness of society – tries to awaken the world to their cause. “A Dirty Shame” echoes the same bass line, revolving around a ragtag gang of sex addicts and their grungy, charismatic leader who – pushed too far by the blandness of society – tries to awaken the world to their cause.
The rebels-against-the-norm template being as old as time, the hope with both films is that a twisted Waters touch will lend enough distraction to render the premises irrelevant. “Cecil B.” succeeded to a certain extent, while “A Dirty Shame” walks shakier ground. For example, where Stephen Dorff once tread now lumbers the star of “Jackass.” Helming the troupe of deviants is Johnny Knoxville as Ray-Ray, an ostensibly simple mechanic who, when the plot requires it, wields impressive supernatural powers. As the designated leader of the sex addicts, it’s his job to spread the love.
Ray-Ray is initially flanked by 11 of his cohorts, a lineup that reads like a who’s-who in the world of obscure fetishes. There’s the adult baby, the human sandwiches, the creepy (though in this case the term may be redundant) kid with an attraction to dirt, the “bears” (who introduce themselves with the line, “We’re hairy, we’re heavy and we’re homosexual!”), the woman whose use of food is unconventional (to say the least) and a few more that are too disturbing to mention in such a widely distributed newspaper.
Now spending their nights in a disastrously messy garage/clubhouse (again, echoes of “Cecil B.”), these libertines were once average, unassuming citizens until head injuries knocked them into a life of sex addiction. When a passing truck concusses formerly frigid grocery clerk Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), the group gains its 12th apostle. Under the direction of Ray-Ray, the group then launches into the ultimate mission: discovering a hitherto unknown sex act. The only thing standing in their way is a legion of self-proclaimed “decent people,” the town’s sex-hating contingent (led by Suzanne Shepherd and Waters-staple Mink Stole), termed “neuters” by Ray-Ray’s disciples.
One imagines this subject matter would be like a playground to Waters and company; a setting where they could truly run wild. Unfortunately for fans of story and plot depth – and fortunately for the art and science of the cheap laugh – “running wild” is quite possibly the most fitting term for what the cast and crew of “A Dirty Shame” do. The movie begins with the spread of controlled chaos and ends with, well, chaos.
Individual quirky ingredients are thrown in, but seem to have no relation to one another. Chris Isaak is cast as Ullman’s befuddled husband and their daughter, played by “Legally Blonde” co-star Selma Blair, is endowed with a cup size so large it’s immeasurable by the existing English alphabet. Subliminal messages (though they’re so slow, “superliminal” might be more appropriate) blink across the screen every so often and “Knight Rider” icon David Hasselhoff makes a cameo that should put to rest, once and for all, the question of whether he takes himself too seriously. For what feels like the first time in Waters’ film history, Computer Generated Imagery is used. Taken as a whole, the experience is more of a series of bizarre – though never boring – moments rather than a coherent narrative.
Then again, should we really measure Waters’ movies on the same scale as we would the next Oscar contender, or even a “normal” piece of cinema? The man’s past body of work suggests that it wouldn’t be a good idea for either us or him. Who else would conceive of a film in which – and I trust I’m not spoiling anything here – sexual aberrants overtake a Baltimore suburb, let alone cast former Symbionese Liberation Army captive Patty Hearst as a compulsive knee-humper? For their singular weirdness, these choices should be valued rather than derided.
The movie has been slapped with the oft-maligned NC-17 rating, but very little of what’s actually seen could truly be called offensive. Though this is far from the sort of motion picture to which you’d bring a first date, its cavalcade of sexual innuendo comes off as humorously farcical rather than brutally shocking. The average David Cronenberg project strikes much harder at the bourgeois sensibility. As it’s more of a light amusement, those praying for Waters to have made a homecoming to the land of revulsion with “A Dirty Shame” will be deeply disappointed. Still, when you hear the addicts’ joyous rallying cry of “Let’s go sexin’!” you can’t help but root for them.