Empty Sex

Shallow Waters: A Dirty Shame lacks substance

The very best thing about A Dirty Shame, a giddy sex farce from John Waters, is the credits. What's not to love about a list of characters that includes "Sylvia Stickles," "Marge the Neuter," "Fat Fuck Frank," "Cow Patty" and "Tire Lick Boy"? The soundtrack, too, bears comic fruit, with songs such as "Tony's Got Hot Nuts," "Eager Beaver Baby," "Boobs a Lot" and "(Baby Let Me) Bang Your Box." Clearly, Waters has sex on the brain -- and everywhere else, as the film soon reveals.

In fact, A Dirty Shame explodes with sex: rampant and unquenchable desire, every extremity of bizarre fetish, and, most notably, sex addiction, which Waters elevates into a religious cult, complete with savior and disciples. Shepherded by super-sexed Ray-Ray Perkins (Johnny Knoxville), Waters' addicts seek not merely to spread their pathology as widely as possible but also to discover their holy grail: a sexual act that has not yet been performed. Anyone who reads Dan Savage will realize what Waters takes delight in acknowledging: It's a lot harder than you'd think.

A Dirty Shame is a spirited movie, alive to the beauty and humor of extremes, and it has a great deal of fun at the expense of both repressed sex-haters (here called "neuters") and people for whom sex is the alpha and omega of existence. But that's all the movie does -- make fun. It lacks depth of any kind: no real characters, no real plot (with an arc and/or resolution), and no meaning. Every time Waters approaches a stance, on sexuality or anything else (though there is little else), he backs off and makes a joke. The result is a movie that has no point.

Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) joins a circle of sex fiends in A Dirty Shame.
Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) joins a circle of sex fiends in A Dirty Shame.

Details

Rated NC-17

Sylvia Stickles (the inimitable Tracey Ullman) is a dowdy wife and mother in Baltimore who doesn't seem to have noticed that her front yard is graced with topiary of a spread-eagled naked woman. When Sylvia's adorable-but-square husband (Chris Isaak) requests a little morning sex, she bats him away: "Can't you see I'm making scrapple?" Then she huffs outside and up a set of stairs, delivering the food to daughter Clarice (Selma Blair), padlocked in her velvety-lush bedroom. A dedicated exhibitionist, Clarice has had her breasts enlarged to voluminous proportions, and it seems she broke a few decency laws down at the biker bar. "We let you keep your tawdry theatrical mementos," Sylvia shrills, presumably by way of apology.

That's the setup. Soon enough, on her way to work, Sylvia suffers a mild concussion and is overcome with sexual desire. In mid-swoon, she meets Ray-Ray and discovers her penchant for a certain sexual practice (hint: She's later known as a "cunnilingus bottom"). Just like that, she's a sex addict, fishing a leopard-print miniskirt from a charity bin and terrorizing the community in search of a fix. And the community isn't having it. Already incensed by other neighborhood sex fiends (including a pack of large, hairy gay "bears" who have sex in the yard), Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd) organizes a decency rally, picketing the streets with signs reading "I hate sex," "I'm not horny" and "I'm not either." The problem? Big Ethel is Sylvia's mother.

Chaos ensues. No sooner has Sylvia joined the sex-addict movement, bonded with and released her boobular daughter, and fomented a sexual rave down at the biker bar, than she is again knocked in the head, returning suddenly to her prim ways. Husband and mother pull her in one direction; Ray and his disciples tug in the other. The streets heat up with tension and anger, and the whole thing explodes in a circus of pawing, humping and joyless ecstasy. It's not supposed to be sexy, and it isn't. By this point in the film, it isn't even fun.

There is material here, if Waters had been willing to engage it. A great deal can be said about our culture's simultaneous obsession with and fear of sex. Repression is funny, but it's also complicated and difficult. Sexual addiction is a real thing, and far from easy, but Waters doesn't want to take it on. He makes that aversion clear with the head-injury business; every sex addict in A Dirty Shame has become one via concussion, so Waters never has to offer even a guess about an actual cause. In fact, he doesn't want to be accountable to any position in this film, except perhaps that of affable joker.

It's a good (and comfortable) role for him, and he packs A Dirty Shame with plenty of savory one- and two-liners, mostly sexy assertions delivered with deadpan solemnity: "My pussy's on fire." "Something is the matter with your vagina." "Don't you find it funny that every man in this neighborhood has a penis?" In one exchange, a woman complains that her husband is on Viagra, and Big Ethel sympathizes: "He has no right to be that hard."

In one sense, to ask Waters to take a stand for anything is to misunderstand him. He's just having fun, and his fun is so often delicious. But in this movie, which relies far too heavily on a single joke, it falls flat long before the party's over. One can't help but wish for more depth, to ground the humor in fertile soil and give it a longer life. In the end, A Dirty Shame is not trying to say anything. So why listen?

 
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