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A DIRTY SHAME(NC-17) (2004)

Fine Line Features

Official Site

Director: John Waters

Producers: Ted Hope, Christine Vachon

Written by: John Waters

Cast: Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Chris Isaak, Selma Blair, Suzanne Shepherd, Mink Stole


John Waters! This guy is more than a movie-maker, he is an icon. He deserves every bit of attention that he gets. But, the question is, “What about his new movie?”

Forgive a brief history lesson:

There was never a closet built that was strong enough to hold this man’s degenerate imagination. In the seventies, his films were X-rated low-budget masterpieces of tawdry excess. In the eighties, his films gained some “big-name” actors, found increasingly believable budgets and production values, dropped down below the “X” rating, and found a new, more mainstream audience. Hairspray, with a full-featured narrative core, found relatively enormous success and was later translated into last year’s Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. His last two films left fans from the early days amused but yawning. For them, the most intense thing he had done lately was an appearance on “The Simpsons”… until this film.

Now, A Dirty Shame gets an NC-17 rating. For all fans of John Waters and his films, this is an important sign. Interest is piqued. Some say that the film doesn’t deserve the rating. It does. Some people say that American Pie is more offensive. Well, of course it is, but that is a different kind of “offensive.” The word on the street remains that the old John Waters has returned to make his most intense and expressively risqué film since Pink Flamingos, the trash masterpiece that started it all. Has he, really?

I hate to give anything away about a movie, but I have to answer that question. Part of the charm of seeing any John Waters film isn’t about the details; it’s the joy of seeing just how far he goes, what he does to challenge our sensibilities with what new surprising outrage. With this in mind, I am sorry, but the answer is “Yes!” This film is a roller coaster that you simply have to ride, and you need to see it in a crowded theater. Do not wait for the DVD.

On a nuts-and-bolts level, the film is an inspired fiction about a Baltimore neighborhood that encounters a rash of sexual addicts whose new obsessions have come about as a result of brain trauma. Before the movie, you may want to brush up on your modern lexicon of various sexual perversions in order to better interpret some of the jokes. None of the sexual activities are really all that sick or cruel, even being a bit predictable. They are, however, genuinely funny. As with all of Waters’ films, the true genius is in how the whole thing is integrated into his completely unique world. The shock is not in the thing itself, but in the context he creates. A Dirty Shame does this beautifully, with an ending that puts the icing on the cake. I wasn’t one bit disappointed. In fact, I was rather satisfied, with an odd desire to sleep. I was so very happy that I got to see the film before the details leaked out, and I suggest you do the same.

The mechanics of the film are flawless. Waters’ films are never about traditional acting, but this cast excels. There was some talk in the early stages about Meryl Streep being cast in the lead role. Much as I would have loved to have seen that, I don’t think she would have pulled it off as well as Tracey Ullman does. Johnny Knoxville is believable as a quasi-deity. Chris Isaak is great in a crucial, straight role that requires a more disciplined performance in a world where virtually every other actor gets to go wild. Selma Blair deserves every conceivable accolade for the incredible job she did of handling those two huge props. Her role could have been so very embarrassingly dumb. Though I don’t think you could ever describe her performance as subtle, she is awe-inspiringly natural and hilarious. Mink Stole, as always, heads the actors who have appeared in Waters’ films since the early days. They not only belong; they are crucial. Flashy production values would be anathema to his filmic world, but the photography of this film occasionally conjures up visions of a David Lynch film made in a hurry, and the music is a perfectly appropriate homage to the sexual energy of the fifties music of Waters’ youth. There are even CG effects (yes, CG effects in a John Waters film), put to good use.

The surprise may be that the film isn’t really all that shocking to some of us. Really, what can a movie do to truly offend you these days, compared to what we can see on the Internet, compared to the reality of current events? Of course, to the religiously intolerant, this film will offend aplenty. Waters himself says, “Maybe I’m asking the question—‘Can tolerance go too far?’” Sure. Waters has always made us evaluate priorities. The pursuit of extremes in sexual gratification can get awfully silly, but this imaginative world of Waters gifts our tired reality with a smile. The pursuit of extreme religious ideals is just as silly, but we aren’t laughing now, are we? Maybe that is what it is all about. What kind of world is it where John Waters’ vision is blasé? It is a world where real dangers so sorely threaten us as to make the relief of his imaginary threats indispensable.

So, why no fifth star? Waters is a filmmaker who is alone in a genre of his own making, and he established the benchmark in the film Pink Flamingos. A Dirty Shame, as good as it is, just doesn’t achieve the same level of intensity. Maybe Waters needs to figure out how to reach out and literally hit us over the head with his message. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t give the man who brought us “Odorama” any ideas.

—Steven Harding

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

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