(very funny) Movie Review: A Dirty Shame

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I just saw the stupidest—and funniest—sex film of the decade.

John Waters made A Dirty Shame in 2004. Perhaps you’ve seen one of his 11 other films—Hairspray (made into a Tony-winning Broadway musical in 2003), the brilliant Cecil B. Demented, Pink Flamingos (one of 6 that he made with the cross-dressing, 300-pound actor Divine), or his first, Mondo Trasho (best movie title of the century, no?).

A Dirty Shame stars Tracy Ullman, our era’s classic comedienne (think Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, Lucille Ball, Rosalind Russell) and pop singer Chris Isaak (our era’s um, Chris Isaak) as Sylvia & Vaughn Stickles, a married couple living in very-vanilla Baltimore. Sylvia gets a head injury, becomes a sex maniac, and hilarity ensues.

In fact, she discovers that many people in Baltimore are not-entirely-closeted sex maniacs of various persuasions, which presents her with some colorful learning opportunities. She suddenly understands the gay “bears” living down the street, supports the elderly french-kissing on the sidewalk, meets a diaper fetishist, and sees how sexy the crotches of trees are.

And she suddenly understands her 18-year-old daughter Caprice, living under house arrest for indecent exposure. The young lovely has built an ersatz career with watermelon-size breast implants, dancing under the nom-de-boner Ursula Udders.

Meanwhile, Sylvia’s mother, Big Ethel, unaware that her daughter is now a sex maniac, leads the locals in a stop-perversion movement. At one point they chant, “Down With Tolerance!” Now we’re talking serious satire. Along the way there are several visits to Sexaholics Anonymous meetings. Did I mention hilarious satire?

The DVD extras are charming. Cast members discuss learning about fetishes, and the wholesome-yet-erotic energy on the set (different from your average film, all agree).

In particular, they recall Selma Blair (Caprice/Ursula) walking around between takes wearing gigantic prosthetic naked breasts. They apparently looked quite real (except for the obviously unreal size), which presented a charming dilemma: Blair’s own breasts were completely covered by the prosthesis—but she looked topless. OK for others to look? Weird for others to get turned on looking? Weird that she didn’t feel the need to cover them?

It’s reminiscent of the battles public school authorities have had with students wanting to wear t-shirts painted with nude breasts or skirts featuring nude butts. What’s “covered,” what’s “nude,” and what’s “sexy?”

Waters’ films always feature people who feel like outsiders, and always feature personal sexuality as insurrectionary (a key plot device of the good-natured Hairspray was Riki Lake and other young white girls wanting to dirty dance with black kids in 1962).

This is a very funny film that happens to be about sex. It’s also a sex movie that happens to be very funny. Unfortunately it’s rated NC-17 for “pervasive sexual language and content”—even though we don’t see a single sex act on camera. Perhaps the American film raters/censors were distressed by euphemisms like “yodeling in the canyon” for cunnilingus.

Or maybe they objected to the suggestion that the difference between being a sex addict and being a prude is just one unexpected knock on the noggin.


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