The first thing to note about John Waters’s A Dirty Shame is that there are two very different versions of the movie. (This is one of those cases where it makes a big difference to read about a film in advance and find out its backstory.)
The original version of the film received an NC-17 rating, though from what I read it really isn’t very explicit at all and is probably more like a PG-13 in terms of which body parts are exposed and such.
So evidently it was the subject matter that ticked off those MPAA folks who do the ratings, the fact that it’s a comic celebration of homosexuality, all kinds of oddball fetishes, and just hedonistic sex in general.
To test that hypothesis, Waters completely sanitized the film of all nudity, all cursing, etc., while leaving the subject matter and the general theme intact. He even took it to the sarcastic extreme of blurring out a person’s hand when they give the finger. So in most respects he brought it down to what would normally get a G rating.
Except for the pro-unconventional sex “mature subject matter,” that is. That remained. The result? The rating only dropped from an NC-17 to an R.
I saw the goofy version that’s sanitized to a sarcastic degree. The censorship is kind of funny in that it’s intentionally amateurish so as to call attention to the fact that it’s been altered (the curse words are dubbed over like something you might see on network TV), but on balance I’d rather have seen the original version. I have to think the more extreme, outrageous version is funnier.
A Dirty Shame is about a Baltimore neighborhood embroiled in conflict between exaggeratedly sex-crazy libertines of various stripes, and exaggeratedly anti-sex prudes. The premise is that the bizarro fetishistic sex positive folks in the neighborhood got that way as a result of suffering a blow to the head. Anyone who gets knocked out becomes a sex fiend when they come to, basically.
It’s kind of like people dying and becoming zombies in a zombie movie. The difference is that it’s reversible. A subsequent blow to the head turns them back into one of the sex-negative people (derided as “neuters”). Some people change camps like that multiple times during the movie.
At least some of the pro-sex people are affiliated with a guru-type figure named Ray Ray, who is intent on forming the proper team that will enable him to discover the one remaining brand new fetish. (It’s unveiled late in the movie. It’s not one I’ll be trying any time soon.) He is accompanied by about equal parts Christ and Satan symbolism.
On the surface at least, there’s no attempt at all to make this a serious movie. (That’s not to say Waters isn’t trying to convey a message he means seriously.) Even more than the typical Waters movie, it’s purely played for laughs.
As such it’s average or a little better (and again, I suspect the unedited version is funnier). There’s maybe a half hour’s worth of funny stuff spread out over an hour and a half.
Some of the characters, some of the scenes, some of the lines are clear winners. Tracy Ullman as the central character is fairly good. Her mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), a leader of the neuters, is better. She has plenty of laugh out loud lines.
Some of the fetishists are entertaining. For some reason the “bears” tickled me. “Last night, hairy overweight men who call themselves ‘bears’ were having sex outside the house!” reports a horrified neuter. They growl, and in one scene are even accompanied by a “bear hag.”
I also love the line by a defensive neuter, “Now I’m no prude. I’m married to an Italian.” Not to mention when the exotic dancer with the gargantuan breast implants is described as having “criminally enlarged breasts.”
The twelve step program meeting, with Patty Hearst, is quite well done.
The music–some popular, some obscure upbeat songs from decades ago with intentional or unintentional double entendres–is cute and clever to an extent, but overdone. The music is too ubiquitous in the movie; I would have preferred it be used more selectively and strategically.
But anyway, when you think about it, what is Waters saying about kinky sex here?
It’s not presented realistically certainly. It’s complete farce. But is it, as I’ve assumed, a celebration of it? Are we supposed to automatically side with the “Let’s go sexy!” people against the villainous neuters?
Maybe. The neuters are pretty clearly held up for ridicule the whole movie. And Ray Ray with his twelve disciples is portrayed as a Christ figure.
But on the other hand, the fetishists are presented as ridiculous as well, and in their way they’re just as intolerant and judgmental as the neuters. Not to mention virtually all the people having sex in the movie are ugly–it’s certainly not the kind of sexy movie to entice people to try this stuff, at least I don’t think so. And as I mentioned above, Ray Ray has as much Satan as Christ in him.
So it seems like there’s some ambiguity here, that it’s not just a straightforward glorification of flamboyant and fetishistic sex.
Maybe there’s not much point to it after all, and Waters is just throwing a lot of sex gags onto the screen and letting people assume it all means something.
Overall, I liked this movie OK as I watched it, and got a decent number of laughs out of it. But after it sank in and I found myself thinking back on a lot of the scenes and funniest lines, I felt myself growing a little more fond of it. So I’ll give it a recommendation if you like goofy, outrageous sex humor, especially if you can get the uncensored original NC-17 version.