Desperate Loving 

John Waters seeks the last great taboo in A Dirty Shame

John Waters seeks the last great taboo in A Dirty Shame

A Dirty Shame

Dir.: John Waters

NC-17, 89 min.

Opening Friday at the Belcourt

Reviews of John Waters' recent movies usually start one of two ways. There's the tone of disappointment: "Veteran schlockmeister John Waters has run out of ways to shock people." Or a note of guarded optimism: "John Waters is up to his old tricks, even if [insert new movie] lacks the outrages of [insert old movie]." The irony—and you can't get around discussing the director of Pink Flamingos without bringing up the term—is that the pride of Baltimore has continued to make pretty much the same movie with degrees of variation since the bad old days.

Most every Waters film, from the PG-rated Hairspray to the X-rated Desperate Living, could be titled Band of Outsiders. All concern makeshift families of oddballs and exhibitionists who find or concoct a place where they are the mainstream. It made sense that Waters' early-1970s movies would practically invent the midnight-movie phenomenon, which gave the term "cult movie" its meaning. The fans of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble felt like a brotherhood of cinematic outlaws—a band of outsiders. That also explains why so many of his fans feel he went soft when he started making PG- and R-rated comedies.

His latest, A Dirty Shame, rated NC-17 and proud, probably won't reconcile the two camps: it's too gross for the Hairspray converts, yet not gross enough to suit the Flamingos faithful. But it's Waters' funniest and most energized film in a decade, and his clearest statement yet of where he stands in a marketplace glutted with bad taste.

A Dirty Shame is to Waters what Kill Bill was to Tarantino: a celluloid "My Favorite Things" splashed with the director's bodily fluid of choice. The framework is that staple of postwar melodrama, the stranger who comes to liberate the womenfolk's repressed libidos. Think Picnic, only in place of William Holden's drifter and Kim Novak's lonely beauty queen, Waters offers Johnny Knoxville as a tow-truck operator named Ray-Ray, who happens upon the scene when frigid convenience-store clerk Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) gets conked on the noggin. Apparently one blow to the head is all that's needed to turn the intercourse-fearing populace into raving sex addicts.

Thus conked—and subsequently bonked by Ray-Ray, a sex messiah who leads a cult of fetishists in search of the last great taboo—the unleashed Sylvia suddenly sees the world through a prism of carnal delights. In the movie's funniest and most inventive scene, she peers at her neighborhood through sex goggles, finding an eroticized Disneyworld of obscene topiary and radio stations that blare cheery double entendres. Like much of the movie's humor, the gag cuts both ways: it ribs fundamentalist hysteria while acknowledging how sex has already saturated the landscape, hidden in plain sight.

It also stakes out Waters' precarious position as a satirist—one who seeks not to subvert the mainstream, but to assert the underground as "the new normal." Highbrow and lowbrow have more in common than either has with the norm: Waters plays both ends against the middle, and A Dirty Shame operates at such berserk levels of irony that it leaves no ideological position unscathed. Somehow the movie's voices of tolerance, a blandly accepting pair of suburbanites, sound even loonier than the crackpot prudes and leering fetishists around them, who finally take to the streets in a literal culture war. Yet all are bound by the same leveler—desire—even if it takes blunt-force trauma to let it out.

A Dirty Shame is as typically uneven as Waters' other movies. The ideal Waters performer is better at acting up than acting, and Ullman, a comic genius, comes off worst when she's doing her best. (By contrast, Selma Blair, as Ullman's Hindenburg-boobed daughter, hits just the right note of pouty camp.) And when invention flags, Waters is only too content to mine easy laughs, like old people or prudes talking dirty. But this chipper encyclopedia of perversions has a manic energy Waters hasn't shown in decades. Maybe he's been galvanized by the idiotic flap over same-sex marriage, in which one side seems hellbent on stamping out the Other. Maybe he wants to see if a generation weaned on reality TV and Internet porn is still capable of shock—or, even funnier, shame. Whatever the case, A Dirty Shame serves as something this country could use right now—a conk on the head.

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