Friday, July 29, 2005


Political Sex Comedy: A Film Review Of 'A Dirty Shame'

Red states, blue states. Should we allow gay marriage, or is it unholy? Is abortion acceptable and sometimes necessary, or is it infanticide? Sex, and issues surrounding sex, are political in America in a way entirely dissimilar to almost every other nation in the developed world. Film director John Waters is hardly afraid to enter the debates in his latest film, 'A Dirty Shame', and it should be pretty obvious to anyone familiar with his previous work what side he would be on.

Political sex comedy.

The plot, unlike the average sex comedy, is actually pretty important. A blue-collar Baltimore suburb is split between 'neuters' and 'sex addicts', and a battle starts to rage between the camps. Each is looking to recruit more members, and convert their opponents. People start, by and large, as being neuters, until they receive a blow to the head, which causes, basically, sudden nymphomania. Those who receive this blow to the head, such as Sylvia (Tracy Ullman), the heroine of the story, fall under the spell of RayRay (Johnny Knoxville), a local car mechanic, who doubles as a sort of Christ-like sexual visionary, on a divine quest to find the one remaining sexual position yet undiscovered.

Waters' ability, as seen in most of his previous works, such as 'Pink Flamingos' and 'Hairspray', to create very bizarre characters and give them life, clearly hasn't deserted him here. Ullman and husband Chris Isaak have a daughter, Caprice, played by Selma Blair, with approximately ZZZ sized breasts, while Isaak's mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), and her assistant Marge The Neuter (Mink Stole), are excellent characterisations of the 'neuter' idea.

Selma Blair's breasts are a pretty impressive technical achievement, all things considered.

Unfortunately for Waters, many of his ideas simply don't gel. The gallery of perversions he offers are as impressive as ever, from a love of dirt to sexualised infantilism, to a love of public masturbation, but the range is in fact so impressive that we spend very little time with each character, meaning it's rather hard to care whether or not they end up allowed to indulge in their fetishes or otherwise. Indeed, frequently the gags fall flat, simply because the fetishes on show start to seem so odd that they almost become other-worldly, and rather disconnected from any reality at all.

A sex-addicts group shot. The Knoxville Disciples!

When not attempting to impress the viewer with his encyclopedic knowledge of fetishism, Waters proves that he can master an excellent joke. Some of the verbal comedy, in particular, is truly hilarious. After hubby Isaak pays a little trip 'downtown' on Ullman, she announces ecstatically, 'now that's what I call sneezing in the cabbage!' Some of the verbal repartee shows a real wit, and it's a bit of a pity there wasn't rather more of that razor-sharp dialogue, and a bit less of the more hit-and-miss physical comedy. Nonetheless, there are genuinely funny moments of physical comedy, such as Chris Isaak's rather delightfully naive astonishment at his neighbours way of answering the door:

The swinging neighbours (Paul DeBoy and Susan Allenback) were amongst the least odd of the streets residents.

It has to be said that Isaak and Ullman were probably the best thing about the film. They actually do have a decent chemistry, and seemed like a plausible-enough couple. This, in itself, was quite fortunate, since some of the other performances lacked a little sparkle. Johnny Knoxville, for example, is a very good looking man, and nobody can deny he really does look the part in a tux, but he still seems wooden to me, and I reckon it'll take him some time to cast the 'Jackass' shackles off. Similarly, Selma Blair seemed rather on autopilot to me, and her segments, which could have been the highlights of the film, instead seemed a rather trivial time-wasting exercise.

Tracy Ullman and Chris Isaak had a good screen rapport, and turned in praiseworthy performances - all the better when you consider acting is not actually what they're primarily known for.

It is in the film's politics that a punch is really packed. Waters provides an well-timed satire on sexual repression, which is as irreverent in its approach to authority figures as you would expect - it is the local police chief, for example, who is the infantilist, and there is a rather childish delight in seeing a fat policeman wearing a nappy and a dummy. By the films conclusion, it would be hard to feel that no blow had been landed upon the rather overly prurient society Waters sees in modern America. Perhaps the most potent attack of all is on the vigilante antics of the neuters, who stir up hatred in the suburb on the basis of hyperbole and lies, ably demonstrating how easy it is for the voice of the extremist to be heard over the voice of the moderate.

The neuters come up with a plan of attack.

In the end, however, the film goes perilously close to failing, mostly because of its finale. While the 'which-way will she end up' plot twisting between neuter-Sylvia and sex-addict Sylvia is interesting to a point, the fact remains that so many characters receive so many bashes to the head by the end of the film that it's rather difficult to remember who is on which side, and when they switched. I was, I have to say, pretty confused, and that fact wasn't helped by the raucous nature of the ending which has the order and the tempo of a particularly violent riot.

Further, there's an enormous plot-hole in the ending which I just have to point out. Sylvia does eventually find the last sex position, which is head-butting, in a sort of fight-of-the-triceratops style. However, if being bashed on the head is the switch between libertineism and prurience, wouldn't every act of this cause the change? This is simply never explained, and it really should have been, because it's so obvious, I can't believe nobody else realised it in continuity.

Still, a nice appearance from The Hoff in an all-crucial cameo.

Ultimately, it's not terribly dirty, and not all that shameful. 'A Dirty Shame' is worth your time, but once you've seen it, you may not be bothered about revisiting.

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