The residents of Baltimore's Harford Road -- decent Americans who view sex with open distaste -- are under creeping assault from libertine neighbors in John Waters' cheerfully raunchy if somewhat pedestrian sex comedy, A Dirty Shame. Middle-aged frump Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) and her mom, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shephard), can barely get down the street without encountering three-ways, hirsute homosexuals and porno enthusiasts.
After Sylvia gets conked on the head and receives the ministration of Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), a sexual messiah, she gets the itch and goes hog-wild for humping. Her placid husband, Vaughn (Chris Isaak), is freaked, but their enormously bosomed stripper daughter Ursula Udders (Selma Blair) is sympathetic. Big Ethel and her pal Marge (Waters stalwart Mink Stole) start a decency campaign, but the sex maniacs are unstoppable.
Waters' film plays more like a clichéd sex comedy (trees with boners) than a send-up, and watching the antics of the sex-crazed soon becomes tiresome. Waters works to keep it lively; he roots around for new fetishes (Payday-ing, sploshing) while trying to make the most of far-from-threatening perversions like oral sex. Part of the film's problem is how hard it works: The soundtrack consists of snarky tunes like Dale Evans' syrupy "The Bible Tells Me So" or nudge-nudge old rock 'n' roll numbers like "The Pussy Cat Song" and "Eager Beaver Baby." Yeah, I get it.
A Dirty Shame is rated NC-17 for dirty talk, a few naked people (standing still) and fully clothed folks grinding, but most of the humor would be right at home on South Park, with its kiddie-teen demographic. Waters, who built a reputation on shock, doesn't even try here: He outfits the modestly proportioned Blair with obviously plastic monster boobs; the Waters of yore would have talked a real stripper with freakishly huge tits into the role.
Longtime Waters fans may also miss the director's usual Baltimore-centric affections. Although it's a real blue-collar residential area, Harford Road is post-war generic; the bizarre conduct depicted is hardly restricted to Charm City; and none of the cast dug deep for that peculiar Bal'mer accent. (In the one of the film's few local jokes, a pair of D.C. Yuppie transplants are shown "restoring" their Formstone, a low-rent, Baltimore-based, faux-stone house-covering.)
Speaking charitably, Dirty Shame skewers our current bi-polar state of new morality crashing against rampant vulgarity -- except that trumpeting free sexual expression isn't naughty or groundbreaking anymore (CSI did a plushie episode, for pity's sake). History will no doubt smile warmly on Waters, a man who helped make the cultural mainstream safe for freaks even as such acceptance has made his own satires seem staid. The tougher chore for Waters now seems to be recognizing when to shift from edgy to emeritus.