John Waters makes movies as if he’d never seen a good one. His reference points are the lowest, cheapest, least imaginative films possible; what he does with them is to exploit and expand upon their inherent vulgarity and falseness, turning them, when his technique works, into a kind of brilliantly cruel anti-art. When his technique fails, as it sometimes must, given his methods, he produces lame, feeble parody. His turn, with 1988’s PG-rated Hairspray, to toothless “message” comedies that could be shown to mass audiences disappointed many of his cult of fans. Without obscenity in his quiver, there were few arrows left. His subsequent films have all had some good moments (usually when he came closest to the ribald anarchy of his earlier films), but they were scattershot and ultimately disappointing. The NC-17 rating of A Dirty Shame and the images of Selma Blair with her gargantuan bosom seemed to promise a return to form—if Waters were going dirty again, how could he disappoint?
Well, it turns out he managed just fine. A Dirty Shame is dirty, all right; it both catalogues and celebrates a wide variety of fetishes (I can’t fault Waters for not being educational—Pecker taught me the definition of “teabagging,” and after this one I have a whole new store of fetish-based cocktail chatter). Unfortunately, it’s also a shame, a disappointingly forced attempt at making madcap whimsy out of the darker regions of the sexual psyche. Perhaps Waters’ time has simply come and gone; the uptight society he rebelled against in his earliest films simply doesn’t exist anymore—the rebels of the ’60s are now the establishment, and, while they may have largely abandoned their political ideals, the sexual freedom they embraced has only expanded. Indeed, given our culture’s growing acceptance of the outre, it’s difficult to imagine a sexual practice that would really turn the heads of a contemporary film audience. This doesn’t diminish Waters’ ambitions, though; it just makes them impossible to fulfill. When, at the film’s climax, the characters supposedly discover a new and startlingly intense sexual act, it’s a huge letdown—not only is it implausible and patently unerotic, it’s just plain silly looking.
Waters has assembled a game cast for his debauchery. Though the general performance level is somewhere just above community theater (as usual Waters has assembled a mix of his own regulars such as Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pierce, non-professionals he probably found at bus stops, and actual actors), no one can claim they don’t attack their roles with gusto. In the lead role, Tracey Ullman is great fun to watch, as a bump to the head transforms her from a frigid “neuter” into a rabidly enthusiastic “cunnilingus bottom,” grabbing every man in sight and shoving his face into her crotch. Her “Hokey Pokey” dance recalls both Truth or Dare and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but Ullman makes it outrageously funny in a way that’s all her own. Blair isn’t given much to do besides bop her giant mammaries around, but she does it with verve. It’s too bad she can’t bring that energy to the scenes where she’s actually speaking, but her role is so under-written that she becomes, like every character on screen, the sum of her sexual organs (or, in the case of the neuters, their metaphorical absence).
If A Dirty Shame works at all, it’s at the level of the sitcom (though one that even HBO would refuse). Waters is still able to write funny one-liners (“I’m Sylvia, and I can’t control my … axis of evil.”) and sight gags (Blair trying and failing to downplay her huge bosoms in a Laura Ashley dress), and he throws out one that works every few minutes. There’s fun to be had here, and anyone who enjoyed Pink Flamingos or Desperate Living knows better than to expect (and probably wouldn’t much want) great cinema. Still, it’s disappointing to see Waters finally diving back into the kind of filthy material he put aside over 20 years ago and seeming to have so little fun with it.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()