By Phil Hall | September 24, 2004

Spoilers Ahead!

John Waters’ new NC-17-rated film “A Dirty Shame” is easily the most surprising comedy of his career. The surprise: it’s not funny.

It certainly had the potential for being hilarious. In a less-fashionable section of Baltimore, the local population has split into two segments. There are the sexual libertines who don’t hesitate to explore their lust and flaunt their fetishes in public, and there are the self-described neuters who hold decency rallies in an attempt to restore rigid puritanism to society. In the middle of this is Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), a grouchy convenience store owner who has no patience or desire for sex. When she receives a concussion in a freak car accident, she suddenly becomes driven into extreme new directions by a suddenly overcharged carnal craving.

Sylvia’s husband (Chris Isaak) is initially happy with his wife’s thawing out from frigidity, but then he becomes seriously bothered by her embrace of free love. Sylvia is pegged as a new apostle for a band of sex addicts led by the auto mechanic Ray-Ray Perkins (Johnny Knoxville), who has Christ-like talents for curing the sick and raising the dead (including a squirrel who is revived by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation), but this healer goes the extra mile by refueling their sex engines to roar off into new horizons.

The real shame in “A Dirty Shame” is a wonderful set-up and a dismal execution. Waters basically conceived a dozen smutty jokes and spends 88 minutes repeating them endlessly. Typical is Sylvia’s daughter Caprice (Selma Blair), who has mammoth mammaries and performs go-go dancing in a biker bar as Ursula Udders. The sight gag of Selma Blair sporting Chesty Morgan-worthy tits is amusing…for 30 seconds. But after a while, watching her shake the (obviously) fake breasts is not funny. It is repetitious and boring – and when big breasts are boring, you know something is wrong.

Likewise, the film is populated with fetishistic characters who exist solely to constantly publicly display their depravities. Watching a fat cop indulge in adult infantilism (complete with pacifier and baby clothing) is okay as a one-shot gag. But by the 30th goo-goo/ga-ga, it is painful. Or having a trio of husky, hairy men identify themselves as bears can be silly when they first make their presence known (they greet their neighbors as Mama, Papa and Baby Bear), but after the 15th growly bear reference you’d wish these bears would hibernate and let some genuinely inventive characters show up on screen.

The film does have one (and only one) inspired moment when Ullman’s character, suddenly liberated with a new degree of sexual audacity, visits an old age home and joins the seniors in a line dance of the “Hokey Pokey.” She takes the song’s lyrics too literally when she begins to shake it all about, transforming a simple kiddie dance tune into a brazen display of unleashed eroticism which culminates in Ullman lifting a water bottle from the floor with her vagina. This is genuine old-style John Waters: grotesque in concept yet gorgeous in the happy disregard for taste and manners. But the moment is too brief to last, sadly.

Members of Waters’ long-running ensemble show up in small roles: Mink Stole, Patricia Hearst, Mary Vivian Pearce and (in fleeting cameos) Ricki Lake and Jean Hill. Unfortunately, they have to cede running time to the likes of Chris Isaak (who cannot act), Johnny Knoxville (who overplays his hand to the point of being a bore) and Suzanne Shepherd as Ullman’s mother (doing a lousy Bea Arthur imitation). And poor Tracey Ullman! She has yet to find a decent movie role that can take advantage of her considerable talents. Squandering her in “A Dirty Shame” is the cinematic equivalent of wasting a precious resource. For shame, indeed.

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