It's ironic, and perhaps inevitable, that many gifted provocateurs are eventually honored by the cultural mainstream they've worked to enrage. Eminem and Pedro Almodóvar win Academy Awards. The South Park gang has to settle for a nomination. John Waters and Mel Brooks go from pushing the boundaries of bad taste to helping entertain tourists with hit Broadway musicals based on their films. It's easy to read Waters' latest, then, as an indignant reaction against mainstream acceptance, a fevered attempt to crawl his way back into the gutter.

After edging toward respectability with fundamentally sweet, gentle films like Hairspray and Pecker, Baltimore's reigning bad boy returns to the manic, censor-baiting crassness of his earliest work with A Dirty Shame, an NC-17 comedy that really should skip the formalities and be shown only at midnight. A full-frontal attack on the Christian Right's brand of sexual puritanism, the film casts Tracey Ullman as an uptight housewife who turns into a raging sex fiend following a head injury. Suddenly insatiable, she joins a sex cult that functions as a U.N. of fetishes and perversions. Selma Blair co-stars as Ullman's daughter and fellow cultist, a stripper and star pupil of the Russ Meyer school of self-improvement through cosmetic surgery. Preaching a gospel of sexual freedom, cult leader Johnny Knoxville leads Ullman, Blair, and his other disciples in a holy war against the forces of sexual repression.


Happily channeling the spirit of Meyer, William Castle, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and every carnival barker and sex-show worker who ever made a quick buck spitting in the face of propriety, A Dirty Shame gets off to a rousing start. Working in a deeply personal, almost amateurish vein, Waters infuses the film with lusty, energetic vulgarity and an underlying sweetness. But economy appears to be one virtue he failed to glean from his beloved B-movies. Once the initial sugar rush of guilty-pleasure laughs subsides, the guilt starts to outweigh the pleasure, and A Dirty Shame lingers far longer than it should. Blair and Ullman throw themselves headfirst into the insanity, reveling in the forfeiture of dignity, self-respect, and self-consciousness their roles demand, but their sex-crazed peers grow depressingly interchangeable as the film goes through its frenzied but ultimately draining paces. Embracing ugliness, lousy production values, and borderline hysteria as virtues, A Dirty Shame is one for the cultists, a proud retreat back into the sandbox of sexual juvenilia, a potty-mouthed manifesto from an elder statesman of shock. Let's just see them try to adapt this one for the Broadway stage.