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Friday, September 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Tom Keogh
Bring a moist towelette, bring a smudge stick, bring a Brillo pad. Whatever you do, be prepared for a sudden need to cleanse something after watching "A Dirty Shame."
John Waters' new Baltimore howler, his first feature since 2000's "Cecil B. DeMented," is an unabashed satire on sexual fetishism and conformity, vaguely set in an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"-like fever dream with recurring, vintage elements of film subversion. Among the latter are snippets from ancient nudist movies and goofy pornography. Waters has fun, too, reviving the old "subliminal message" scam, in which words appearing briefly on-screen (such as "whore" in "A Dirty Shame") allegedly sway a viewer's emotions.
Tracey Ullman leads a truly uninhibited cast with her loony performance as Sylvia Stickles, disgruntled wife of pleasant dullard Vaughn (Chris Isaak), whose charmless advances toward Sylvia are met with scorn.
The two are also parents of freakishly buxom Caprice (Selma Blair), permanently locked in her room lest she retreat toward the biker bar where she is beloved as a topless goddess.
Knocked on her head during a traffic incident, Sylvia is revived by the messianic Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), who believes she can help him discover a sexual act that transcends the human body. Sylvia, transformed into a madwoman hell-bent on oral sex (Ray-Ray's other apostles are into such fringe pleasures as dressing up as a baby or pouring food on themselves), suddenly bonds with Caprice and joins a rising tide of public debauchery that looks like a comic-perverse take on cautionary science-fiction films.
"A Dirty Shame" is easily Waters' most outré feature since the early years of "Pink Flamingos," "Desperate Living" and "Polyester," though its surface craftsmanship reflects his more recent, attenuated and highly likable art-house farces "Serial Mom" and "Pecker."
In a way, "A Dirty Shame" is the kind of film a veteran writer-director makes when he wants to recycle and amplify his signature themes and ideas, regardless of whether he's got a real story in which to do it. "A Dirty Shame" allows Waters to let his trashmeister reputation hang out for its own sake how else to excuse the sight of animated squirrels having such frenzied sex they crack a ceiling?
In Waters' cinematic world, deviancy whether sexual, criminal or stylish equates a certain smug but guileless freedom, making deviants fun to be with even if one feels sullied by closing credits. "A Dirty Shame" finds Waters basking in the wildness of such fun, but the film is also a retreat from his more sophisticated causticity of late. On one hand, it's a victory; on the other, it disappoints.
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