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Dirty? Yes, But No Shame

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2004; Page WE45

WITH HIS SWEETLY sexed-up satire "A Dirty Shame," filmmaker John Waters may, among his many distinctions, have the honor of being the first person to have made an NC-17 film that can be honestly described as warm and fuzzy.

It's just that the movie is so gosh-darned, I don't know, cuddly -- in a perverse, John Waters kind of way -- that it's hard not to like.


Uptight store clerk Sylvia (Tracey Ullman) experiences a sexual awakening in John Waters's satire "A Dirty Shame." (James Bridges -- Fine Line Features)

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In a sharp departure from his last film, the sour, joyless "Cecil B. DeMented," "A Dirty Shame" returns to the wicked mix of transgression and positivity epitomized by "Pecker" and "Hairspray." With its sex-positive outlook and unsubtle skewering of puritanical prunes, it's a message movie at heart, albeit one with very bad manners. Inappropriate for children -- heck, it's not even appropriate for most adults -- "A Dirty Shame" is a grown-up bedtime story, with the emphasis on the bed.

Set, as usual, in his native Baltimore, "Shame" centers around the Stickles family. Materfamilas Sylvia (Tracey Ullman), an uptight convenience store clerk, has not only locked away from the world her daughter Caprice, a stripper known professionally as Ursula Udders (Selma Blair, outfitted with a gargantuan pair of prosthetic breasts), but has frozen out her sexually unsatisfied husband, Vaughn (Chris Isaak), from what used to be quaintly known as her "marital duty." When Sylvia receives a knock on the head, however, she is transformed from a repressed matron into a nymphomaniac, ultimately joining a local band of sex-mad cultists led by an evangelical auto mechanic named Ray-Ray Perkins (a deliciously messianic Johnny Knoxville). Suddenly, she discovers that her seemingly quiet blue-collar neighborhood masks a teeming, writhing sexual underground of hirsute gay male "bears," tickling fetishists, porn aficionados and horny housewives.

For Sylvia, it's a brave new world of "funch," "sneezing in the cabbage," "shrimping" and other comic euphemisms for you-know-what. (All of whose definitions I'll leave to your filthy imaginations. Let me just say this: After "Shame," you'll never be able to hear the phrase "axis of evil" in the same way.)

Naturally, Sylvia's dead-down-there neighbors band together to stamp out what Ray-Ray calls his "Noah's ark of perversion." The ensuing conflict -- through which Waters satirizes the hypocrisy and unhealthy attitudes of those he considers not just anti-sex but anti-life -- is amusing, if predictable.

Based on a relatively rare medical condition in which some head-injury sufferers actually find themselves unable to control sexually inappropriate behavior, the film, when it comes down to it, contains little more material than what might ordinarily fuel an extended skit on some after-hours, cable-TV sketch comedy show. Thanks to a generous helping of Waters's heart, which despite its twisted shape seems to have room this time for not just the film's erotically liberated heroes but hope for its unhappy, sexually frustrated villains, "A Dirty Shame" is the kind of satire that affirms the psychological -- as well as the social -- benefits of unbridled lust.

A DIRTY SHAME (NC-17, 89 minutes) -- Contains nudity, obscenity and pervasive sexual humor. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle, Landmark's Bethesda Row and N.E. Theatres Fairfax Corner.


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