Director's fans will find joy in having 'Shame'

Every once in a while, the complaints start. John Waters, his longtime fans will groan, is going mainstream.

If A Dirty Shame is mainstream cinema, then heaven help the rest of the directors in the world. Because this is the kind of film only John Waters could make, a perfect distillation of Waters' off-kilter sensibilities. It's not to everyone's tastes, but then it was never meant to be. Like almost all of Waters' works, it rewards those who appreciate his world view with a celebration of the mundane as filtered through the perverse, a funhouse mirror reflection of middle-class values and mores that's equal parts tribute and lambaste.

It's funny, too. And offensive. And just short of obscene. It skewers anything and everything within reach, and if that's not what you're looking for in your cinematic experience, pray move on.

Tracey Ullman gets to play the Divine role in A Dirty Shame. Her Sylvia Stickles starts off your basic mom facing a raft of challenges, including a clueless husband, a sex-crazed daughter and a rather humdrum existence. Rescue from the last comes via a bonk on the head that mysteriously transforms her from upstanding citizen to sex maniac, a wanton woman wantin' as much as she can possibly get - and she's not real choosy about the where or what, either.

Soon, she's fallen into step with local sex guru Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), who drives a tow truck looking for recruits for his upcoming sexual revolution, a coarsening of the masses for which he's set himself up as something of a messiah. Through Ray-Ray, Sylvia finds enlightenment in what most everyone else would call degradation, and begins to see sexual rapaciousness as a valid lifestyle choice.

All this happens just as the rank-and-file along Harford Road are getting fed up with the scurrilous behavior surrounding them, the mailman who leers at the pornographic magazines he's delivering, the trio of bear-like gay men who don't care who sees them doing what, the free-love practitioners who recently moved in from out of town. It's all getting to be too much for a respectable city block to bear.

And so the denizens rise up against all this rampant salaciousness, led by Sylvia's mom, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), and her gung-ho neighbor, Marge (Waters perennial Mink Stole). Thus is the battle enjoined between the "neuters" and the sex addicts, with the very soul of Harford Road as the prize.

Other combatants and casualties include Sylvia's daughter, Caprice (Selma Blair), whose 88-DD breasts (I'm guessing as to size here) have made her a huge hit down on The Block. And, of course, there's Sylvia's poor husband, Vaughn (Chris Isaak), who's both horrified and delighted by his wife's transformation. He's probably more a neuter than a sex addict, but he certainly appreciates the carnal pleasures of the other side.

To say much more about the plot, certainly to provide much more in the way of details of the sexual proclivities detailed in A Dirty Shame, is to risk violating the standards of this newspaper. Suffice it to say that the addicts prove an all-encompassing bunch.

More than any film since 1972's Pink Flamingos, A Dirty Shame is archetypal Waters, an attack on everything respectable people hold sacred. There's nothing terribly prurient about the movie; certainly, anyone who finds it sexually exciting has some issues to deal with. But the whole movie constitutes the sort of wordsmanship for which our mothers once threatened to wash our mouths out with soap, and one of the continuing joys of Waters' work is how he clearly relishes getting away with such behavior, even getting paid - not to mention acquiring a fan base! - for it.

But when it comes to having fun, Waters takes a backseat to Ullman, who shimmies her way through the movie as though this were the role of her career; hers is a performance both brave and reckless, one that knows no bounds of propriety or good taste. It's always a risky proposition when Waters casts mainstream actors in his films; when crudity is a selling point, actors who work hard to polish their craft sometimes have trouble getting with the program. But not Ullman, clearly embracing the opportunity to let go.

Knoxville, whom Waters has regarded as a kindred spirit since seeing him on MTV's Jackass, bears up well as the sleazy protagonist with the heart of ... well, sleaze. He's unregenerate, and proud of it.

There's always a subtext behind Waters' films, and it's usually pretty straightforward: This, he continually emphasizes, is the stuff you guys find offensive and worth getting outraged over, and isn't that pretty ridiculous? As a spoof of the sexploitation films he grew up with, A Dirty Shame is a tribute both warm and nostalgic, but it's also pointed, a suggestion that society should vent its moral outrage a little more selectively.

A Dirty Shame is certainly dirty, and maybe it's even a shame. But this is the John Waters we've come to know and cherish, and that alone is cause to celebrate.