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Tough Love

John Waters, to Us, You’ll Always be the King of Camp—But Camp Just Isn’t as Funny as it Used to Be

Heavy Traffic on Harford Road: Tracey Ullman opens her arms--and her legs--to the neighborhood in A Dirty Shame.

A Dirty Shame

Director:John Waters
Cast:Tracey Ullman, Chris Isaak, Selma Blair, Johnny Knoxville, Suzanne Shepherd, Mink Stole, James Ransone
Screen Writer:John Waters
Genre:Comedy, Camp

By Lee Gardner | Posted 9/15/2004

John Waters’ cinematic world now includes such contemporary geegaws as CGI and très designy superimposed titles. Of course, for A Dirty Shame he crunched the data to generate humping squirrels and flying frozen turds, and the titles spread epithets like w-h-o-r-e across the screen. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The real world has changed quite a bit, however. The rise of gross-out film comedies and the increasing prominence of camp, albeit an airbrushed version, as a prime-time TV staple have made incursions into Waters’ trademark aesthetic turf. Everyday e-mail spam makes a lot of the stuff that used to scandalize straight filmgoers about Waters’ movies in the ’70s look tame. A Dirty Shame finds everyone’s favorite hometown auteur firmly in his comfort zone, lampooning uptight American values through the peculiar lens of white Baltimore and going for the outrageous laughs, but it comes off a bit, well, quaint—assuming a film rated NC-17 can be considered quaint.

A Dirty Shame opens with frumpy Harford Road convenience-store clerk Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) rebuffing the morning-time advances of her husband, Vaughn (Chris Isaak). “It’s light out,” she huffs. All is not so low-libido in the Stickles home, though; daughter Caprice (Selma Blair), aka gargantu-boobed stripper Ursula Udders, is doing home detention in a padlocked bedroom for an indecency charge. And by nightfall, thanks to an accidental bonk on the head, Sylvia transforms into an unleashed sexpot on the prowl for someone, anyone, to “yodel in the canyon” (one of about two dozen cunnilingus euphemisms the game Ullman mouths with aplomb).

She is not alone. It seems that Harford Road has been overrun with sexual kinksters, tow-truck driver/cult leader Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville) chief among them. Even the local foliage starts sprouting vulvas and penises. It’s up to Sylvia’s mom, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), and her friend Marge (City Paper’s own Mink Stole) to rally the moral (read: prudish) opposition to all this overheated action.

If nothing else, A Dirty Shame proves Waters has retained his gimlet eye for the oogy. Even the most jaded filmgoer is likely to drop jaw when a nursing-home hokey-pokey session inspires newly loosened-up Sylvia to pick up a water bottle without the use of her hands, or when convenience-store mop jockey Dingy Dave (The Wire’s James Ransone) gets overfriendly with some raw hamburger. And while it’s not oogy, exactly, you don’t see Patty Hearst grinding her crotch against some guy’s knee like she was on a pony ride every day.

But much of the time, A Dirty Shame disturbs, or engages, little more than an above- average high-school play. Knoxville’s got charisma to burn as the strangely fey sex messiah Ray-Ray, but every time the script requires him to shout “Let’s go sexin’!” it comes off dumb, not funny. Once it’s established that a blow to the head can flip the switch turning people from frigid “neuters” to raving sex addicts and back, the plot goes bonk-happy like a bad sitcom. Just as the faux gopher was the lamest part of Caddyshack, the CGI squirrels play a similar role here. And for a comedy about upright citizens sinking into a mire of sexual abandon, A Dirty Shame settles for talking a good game and flashing plain-spoken full-frontal nudity rather than generating a little prurient heat or its similarly compelling flip side, the titular shame.

Which is not to say that the film doesn’t provide its share of laughs. If there’s a breakout performance here, it comes from Shepherd. Best-known for her recurring role as Carmela’s mom on The Sopranos, she brings to the gruff Big Ethel a deadpan force that blows almost everyone else off the screen. It’s hard to say whether Waters gave her all the best lines (“Harford Road used to be for families—now it’s a lesbian aorta.”) or whether her delivery just makes them seem like the best (she makes a side-splitter out of a simple bellow of “Sperm!”). Regardless, she’s a riot. Likewise, Waters has some good fun with a couple of smug D.C.-yuppie invaders (Scott Morgan and Lucy Newman-Williams) who love Baltimore for its “texture.”

It’s worth noting that Big Ethel and the yuppies are the most realistic characters here. Waters’ most successful recent films, particularly Hairspray and Pecker, found most of their best jokes and scored their best points closer to real people and real life. A Dirty Shame boasts plenty of real-Baltimore cred, as any local can see, and surely there are actual perverts aplenty lining Harford Road as you read this, but the more outlandish the new film gets the less funny it is (see also 2000’s Cecil B. Demented).

It’s hard not to feel affection for Waters’ work, as his own embrace of his perennial interests is so unreserved and loving, but hearing him use ’50s whitebread pop to signal boring “good” and ’50s rockabilly to signal exciting “bad” again, in a movie set in 2004, is just one aspect of A Dirty Shame that fosters the sinking feeling that when the film’s ecstatic libertines hit the real real world, beyond Waters’ Harford Road, they’re going to be in for an unpleasant surprise.

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