Every once in a while, a movie comes along that shocks me. Sometimes this can be a good thing and other times it can be a bad thing. In the case of the new feature film from acclaimed director John Waters, A Dirty Shame, I was left not knowing what to think. On one hand, the film does have a number of funny moments, but at the same time it's one of the most offensive, over the top, disturbing, and just plain messed up motion pictures I've seen in recent and even distant memory. Now, seeing as many movies as I do and being open to pretty much everything, I'm not one to become offended very easily, but the concepts and lewd content in this film almost had me running for the hills. So with that as a bit of warning, those of you with strong religious beliefs or who are easily offended would be wise to skip the movie all together and only skim through the following review.
Harford Road is just your regular street in suburban Baltimore. It's home to the Stickles Family, led by Sylvia (Tracey Ullman), a middle aged drug store clerk who no longer has any interest in having any sort of sexual relations with her husband Vaughan (Chris Issak). Sylvia is disgusted by the act of sex and is ashamed of her daughter Caprice (Selma Blair), who until she locked her up was dancing at a local nude bar under the name Ursula Udders. Caprice is sort of an exhibitionist and had gotten ridiculously large breasts that almost have to be seen to be believed. Sylvia works at the drug store for her mother Big Ethel (Susan Shepard), who is equally disgusted with the influx of sex and alternative lifestyles making their way into their otherwise quiet and peaceful area. One day on her way to work, Sylvia is knocked unconscious during a random traffic accident. Luckily for her, Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville) sees her and revives her with his magical powers of healing. However, when she awakens she's a changed person, and now instead of being disgusted about sex she embraces it to the fullest. Shocking everyone she knows, she begins to go about the town looking for sex in any place she can find it. Teaming up with Ray-Ray, she learns of an underground group of sex addicts who are looking for the promised one, a person who can lead them to a truly revolutionary, never-before-practiced sex act. Meanwhile, Big Ethel and her group of anti-sex protesters will do anything and everything to turn Harford Road back into the wholesome family community it once was.
Reading even the most basic of plot synopses beforehand, it was clear that I'd either be totally with the picture or against it. After all, John Waters is not a mainstream film maker in any sense of the word and the NC-17 certification in the U.S. and 18A locally here in Vancouver meant that this wasn't going to be child's play. So I wasn't surprised when the lewd and shocking content appeared on screen before the opening credits were finished flashing upon the screen.
Having said that, for about the first 45 minutes or so, I was with the film all the way, despite it being almost constantly over the top. There was something to this totally oddball approach at comedy that was, if not overly appealing, was at least appealing on a curiosity level. Scenes involving a family of men who are not related but call themselves "Bears" were humorous, as was a scene with Tracey Ullman's Sylvia Stickles doing an X-rated version of the childhood dance Hokey Pokey. There were also numerous sight gags, including Ray-Ray giving mouth-to-mouth to a squirrel that brought some laughs from this reviewer, as well some sharp and crude one liners that are all so inappropriate that I can't make mention of them in this review. It's after the first 45 minutes that things take a turn into the unbearable, as the film begins to just go entirely too far. Now, those of you who regularly read my reviews know that I'm not a religious person and it takes a lot to offend me with regards to that subject matter. John Waters does it here with his conceptual idea that a group of 12 sex addicts are sent down from God, and Ray-Ray is their god-like leader figure. I'm sorry, but that's just too much for me. I'm open to different interpretations on the Apostle situation like in Dogma, but I'm pretty damn sure that the Apostles were not sex addicts. Equally offensive was the fetishes that these people had. Waters, never one to shy away from disgusting audiences with sexual content (the tea bagging definition in Pecker for example), continues that trend here.
Part of what makes A Dirty Shame compelling to watch is not only to see what crazy thing Waters will come up with next, but also the performances which on the whole are stellar. It's actually interesting to watch this group of talented actors act completely over the top and crazy, and to see them put in these situations. If the movie was filmed with a different set of actors, it would not be nearly as watchable (if one could consider it that way now). In the lead role of Sylvia Stickles we have the always excellent British comedienne Tracey Ullman, best known for her Emmy-nominated Tracey Takes All. Here, she plays a prude turned sex-crazed middle age woman with such excellence that you'd actually think she has multiple personalities. Chris Issak, best known as a singer and sometimes actor, plays her husband Vaughan with relative ease as he takes a confused and mixed approach to his wife's new interest in sex. Issak's done comedy before on his TV show, and he plays things broader than normal here. Selma Blair, who I've liked since I saw her in Cruel Intentions, is great as the big-breasted Caprice. Blair is saddled with the broadest material and the biggest fake breasts ever seen on screen, and handles the comedy quite well. Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame hasn't really done much for me with his acting roles thus far, but he's perfect for the sleazy, slimy Ray-Ray. This is a role that was tailor made for Knoxville. If he keeps taking roles similar to this, then he could see himself with a decent little acting career. Also worth mentioning is Susan Shepard's Big Ethel, one bad-ass old woman you don't want to mess with.
John Waters' A Dirty Shame is without question a dirty movie. Its subject matter is offensive, and while the film does have a number of genuinely funny moments towards the beginning and scattered throughout, once it hits the 45-minute marker, interest begins to shift and the film runs out of gas. Commenting on religion and linking it to sex is a dangerous move which will likely outrage a number of religious groups and may turn off even the most forgiving viewers. The film has been slapped with an NC-17 rating in the U.S. and will be released uncut with that rating, which will limit its audience to adults, most of whom are not really the film's target demographic. Waters' film is really geared at teenagers who like gross-out and disgusting humour, but few will be able to get to see the film. There's no doubt in my mind that some audiences will enjoy this film. Waters' fans will praise it for the genius they see in it. I, however, can't look past the story content, and while it may aim at being a film about acceptance of different types of people, it's really just too blatantly over the top and crude for me. Although it's not without its funny moments and it's never unwatchable in that I wanted to leave the theater, it is a film for a limited audience. If you like Waters or you like to be disgusted, then you won't find a better movie for that. In fact, in many ways this film makes South Park look like Sesame Street. A valiant effort, but one that fails nonetheless for this reviewer.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.