Monday, May 02, 2005

Review - A Dirty Shame


Well, at least the title is appropriate. John Waters, the director famed for bad taste, has returned with his first film in four years, and it’s a stinker. There’s nothing in it to match Waters’ high water mark of gross-out humour (transvestite Divine eating a dog turd in Pink Flamingos) but this film is shocking for another reason: the complete lack of laughs.
Once again, Waters sets the action in his beloved home town of Baltimore. Tracy Ullman stars as Sylvia Stickles, a miserable, dowdy housewife who has no interest in sex, much to the frustration of her husband Vaughan (Chris Isaak). But things change for Sylvia when she is hit on the head and her resulting concussion awakens a furious sexual desire in her. A local mechanic named Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville) takes advantage of this and invites Sylvia to join his team of sex addicts, whose aim is to liberate the prudes around them and discover the holy grail - a sexual act which has never been done before.

There is so much wrong with A Dirty Shame that it’s hard to know where to start. Waters’ script is a major culprit; a monotonous, shallow and uninspired effort. OK, we don’t exactly expect sophistication from one of Waters’ screenplays, but this one is staggeringly low on decent gags. Waters has found a couple of jokes and repeats them endlessly in a desperate attempt to stretch the film out to feature length. For example, Selma Blair, as Sylvia’s trashy daughter, sports a pair of comically enormous breasts (credit to the makeup department). The first sight of Blair dancing in hot pants may provoke a bit of surprised laughter but it doesn’t have the same effect after the umpteenth viewing. Likewise, the fact that the characters zap in and out of sex addiction by banging their head leads to a number of unfunny slapstick scenes.

This all becomes very tiresome very quickly. Waters takes the tone of a sniggering schoolboy throughout, flashing words like W-H-O-R-E and V-A-G-I-N-A up on screen at regular intervals. Most of his efforts appear to have gone into compiling an encyclopaedic list of euphemisms and sexual perversions which he proceeds to trot out in place of witty dialogue. Of course, the film’s scattergun approach means one or two moments will raise an indulgent chuckle, but the ratio of duds to gags is embarrassingly unbalanced.

What Waters doesn’t seem to realise is that all this may have been shocking twenty years ago but it appears lame and childish today. He has pretty much become part of the mainstream now, a camp icon, while younger filmmakers such as Todd Solondz have stolen his thunder with genuinely subversive, offensive films. Once you take the shock value away from Waters’ films, you’re left with precious little else.

The cast don’t really help matters. Tracy Ullman attacks her role with a manic energy, which carries the film in the early stages, but her face-pulling and shouting wears awfully thin after a while. Johnny Knoxville is given almost nothing to work with and delivers a forgettable display, Chris Isaak and Susanne Shepherd are alright, while the rest of the cast are hit and miss.

The second half of the film becomes a zombie movie spoof, with the ‘neuters’ under siege from the sex addicts, leading to a chaotic climax involving head-butting and David Hasselhoff on the toilet. But by that stage I had completely lost interest in the whole business and was wondering how on earth Waters made such a mess of this? A Dirty Shame was a superb opportunity to take a swipe at the puritanical mores of the American right, but his film is too broad to work as satire and too unfunny to work as anything else. He had a premise loaded with potential and screwed it up completely. That’s the real dirty shame of this movie.