In case you don't know, writer/director John Waters is a boundlessly cheerful man who makes low-budget movies in his home city of Baltimore. His most notorious early work is the cult favorite Pink Flamingoes, which contains a now-legendary scene so disgusting that it would send more gentle souls screaming from the theater straight to a nunnery. You don't see anything like that in A Dirty Shame, by the way, although the screenplay refers to all sorts of bizarre sexual behaviors.
Selma Blair as Ursula Udders
Over the years, Waters became more accessible with films like Hairspray (yes, that one the Broadway play is based on), Cry Baby and Serial Mom. Waters is a terribly charming guy. Sporting a pencil-thin moustache and armed with a million freaky anecdotes, his speeches and DVD commentary tracks are better than any stand-up comedian. His status as pop culture icon was cemented when an episode of The Simpsons was built around him. Remember "Homer's Phobia," where Homer flips out when he learns that flamboyant new family friend John - proprietor of a kitschy collector's shop - is gay? Waters provided the voice for John, who looks like him, too.
A Dirty Shame is Waters' attempt to do a Reefer Madness-style farce about sex. The comedy is phenomenally juvenile and very funny for a while, and then it runs out of gas. But - like the little engine that could - it gets a second burst of energy and comes back for a finish nearly as good as the opening. Along the way, Waters makes a few points about our society's idiotic reactions to all things sexual, but the accent here is on humor, not philosophy. Or so it seems ...
Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) is a surly, repressed Baltimorean wife, mother and proprietor of the "Pinewood Park and Pay" convenience store. Handsome husband Vaughn Stickles (Chris Isaak) would love to have sex with his wife, but she shows no interest. Caprice (Selma Blair), their exhibitionist daughter, is a go-go dancer known as Ursula Udders for her outrageously enhanced breasts. After several "nude and disorderly" arrests, Caprice has been sentenced to home detention. The Stickles keep her locked up in an apartment over their garage.
The world goes topsy-turvy for Sylvia when she receives a head injury during a freak accident. Tow-truck driver Ray-Ray Perkins (Johnny Knoxville) comes to her rescue and Sylvia finds out that he's really a sexual healer - ready, willing and able to help poor, repressed souls release their hunks of burning love.
He liberates Sylvia and the change thrills Vaughn, until he sees his bride do a dance during a routine visit to the nursing home that culminates in her lifting a water bottle from the floor without using her hands, feet or mouth. This infuriates Sylvia's mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), who joins forces with citizens like Marge the Neuter (Mink Stole) to organize the prudes.
Soon, Baltimore is blazing with all forms of erotic weirdness as more and more people get head injuries and start indulging their kinkiest urges. Ursula Udders runs wild and Ray-Ray becomes a XXX-rated messiah, joyously shouting, "Let's go sexin'!" as he gathers his apostles in search of an erotic miracle.
Will Big Ethel and the Neuters snuff out the sexual hootenanny or will Sylvia and her "runaway vagina" prevail? More importantly, will you enjoy the show? Certainly, John Waters' movies are not for everybody and many will choose to sniff at his vulgarity and walk away. Fuck 'em. A Dirty Shame is a riot, despite any slow stretches. I tried to convince myself that the movie is cartoonish trash and besides, he keeps doing the same jokes over and over, but the giddy mood prevailed. And who among you will blame me? How can anyone resist a movie where Johnny Knoxville gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a squirrel?