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A Dirty Shame

John Waters has never cared much what other people think, making movies for over 30 years that appeal to his own peculiar sensibilities, living far from the Hollywood dream factory in the same house in Baltimore, and working over and over with the same band of friends who designed the sets and costumes and makeup for his early high-school forays into shock cinema. This isn't to say that Waters hasn't occasionally attempted mainstream fare — 1994's Serial Mom, while a very black comedy, was positively tame compared to, say, 1970's Multiple Maniacs and his '50s exploitation spoof Cry Baby (1990) launched Johnny Depp as more than just a pretty "21 Jump Street" face. But the Serial Mom experience took Waters as close to making a universally accessible Hollywood film as he was willing to go, and — with the money he received from the stupendously successful Broadway musical based on 1988's Hairspray — the director appears to have decided to go back to his roots, turning out the sort of crude, rude, insanely over-the-top films that only a hardcore Waters fan could love — first Pecker (1998), then Cecil B. Demented (2000), and then, in 2004, A Dirty Shame. The only things that differentiate these films form the early efforts made with money borrowed from Waters' parents are the notably better production values and the higher quality of actors — the lines are still stupid and corny, the plots ridiculous, and Waters' direction charmingly un-evolved.

In A Dirty Shame, an uptight Baltimore wife and mother named Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) is concussed in a car accident and transformed into an insatiable sex addict. She discovers an underground of similarly afflicted sex fiends — all who once suffered head injuries — led by their mystical sex-healer leader, Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville). A group of anti-sex prudes, led by Sylvia's mom Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), intend to rid the neighborhood of all of the perverts, while Ray Ray and his fetishistic apostles — including Sylvia's mammary-enhanced, go-go dancing daughter Caprice (Selma Blair, with scary-big fake boobs) — seek to discover a new sex act and spread the gospel of "sexin'." Yes, it's a return to the good old-fashioned bad taste upon which Waters built his reputation — lots of pussy jokes, folks with bizarre fetishes, and dried-up, humorless prudes playing villains. And for those who love the old Waters of the '70s, they will probably love this as well — the problem is that, as an exercise to show how ridiculous the MPAA rating system is (the film has virtually no nudity and no graphic sex, getting an NC-17 rating purely because characters talk about sex a lot), there's not a lot else to recommend it. Some scenes are admittedly funny amid the deliberately provocative, non-stop tastelessness. A segment involving Ray-Ray and his disciples disrupting a 12-step meeting for sex addicts is hilarious, and anyone who's known people who make a point of constantly talking about their sex lives, going so far as to completely identify themselves on the basis of their preferences, will be amused by the proud kinkiness of Ray-Ray's band of perverts — the family of "bears" is especially funny when they introduce themselves to Sylvia's clueless spouse (Chris Issak): "Hi, I'm Mama Bear. Have you met my hus-bear?" "I'm Papa Bear — and this is our cub, Baby Bear." "Grrrr!" But overall, it all feels sort of tired and unnecessary and obvious, and it's all territory that Waters has mastered before. But, as they say, if you like this sort of thing… here's some more.

*          *          *

New Line Home Entertainment offers A Dirty Shame in two versions, the original NC-17 theatrical release and a censored R-rated cut with dubbed-over dirty words. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is very good, doing justice to Waters' garish use of color, and the DD 5.1 audio is clean as well. There are some nice extras on board, starting with a delightful commentary track by the director — no matter what you think of this particular film, John Waters himself is always a hoot, and his scene-specific remarks throughout the movie are enthralling. This is one of those films that are actually more entertaining to watch with the yack-track going. Another commentary track features the tech crew, Waters' longtime collaborators Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, and Van Smith, with prop master Brook Yeaton; the group chat about a wide range of things, mostly involving working with Waters, and it's not nearly as good as the director's commentary. Also on board is an excellent "making-of" documentary, All the Dirt of A Dirty Shame (82 min.), a deleted scene, the theatrical trailer, and DVD-ROM content. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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