Booby prize

Demi Moore presses the flesh in Striptease

Because some of my friends have gotten married, I've had--on rare occasion--the opportunity to attend a few bachelor parties. Mostly, that means cheap beer and even cheaper nude dancers.

I've seen a variety of sexual come-ons at these events, designed to titillate the hoi polloi: pole-licking, role-playing, hip-grinding of all kinds. There were sleazy dives and classy "clubs," pretty girls and ugly ones--from provocative teasers who leave much to the imagination to genuine exhibitionists (God bless 'em) who were butt naked.

But while these women have all been different in their own ways, they almost always have one thing in common, despite the casual degradation of it all: enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm is probably the element most conspicuously missing from Striptease, Demi Moore's flaccid new comedy. Since the movie doesn't know what it wants to be, for two hours it waffles between social satire, comic murder-mystery, and screwball farce. The resulting jumble is a toothless pussycat with a tiger's attitude, as blandly chaotic as it is vacuous.

Striptease is a skimpily plotted little time-waster about a loving single mom, Erin Grant (Moore), who takes a job dancing at a Miami club called the Eager Beaver. She's only stripping to pay for a child-custody appeal after her daughter is sent to live with her wastrel ex (Robert Patrick). Even though she's always saying to her co-workers, "You know I love you girls," Erin desperately wants to get a "real" job, especially when she gets involved in a blackmail scheme involving a lecherous congressman (Burt Reynolds).

As directed by Andrew Bergman, Striptease is too apologetic for its own good, and somewhat schizophrenic as well: It glorifies its $12.5 million star's supple, firm body one minute, and coyly cuts away from nudity the next. It's as if Bergman's embarrassed about all the nakedness, or defensive about having the film characterized as "flesh-peddling." Which is exactly what it is--let's face it.

The best thing about Striptease is the surprisingly enjoyable performance of Reynolds. Reynolds won't give Duvall competition any time soon, but with his Dobie Gillislike blond hair and black eyebrows and toothy grin, he manages to squeeze more out of the movie than anyone else; he's a hoot. Although basically hamming it up in a caricature of himself--a paunchy over-the-hill ex-Lothario clinging pathetically to a youthful image with a silly-looking toupee and a stream of chippies--Reynolds is probably too arrogant to acknowledge the ironic parallels. If he wises up, he could parlay his work here into a decent new career based on campy character parts.

Reynolds almost steals the show by default, because the scenes that hold the most entertainment value are the ones full of befuddled absurdity. His sick-puppy reveries play as grand burlesque, with some throwaway details and fleeting sight gags just kooky enough to enliven the film's perpetual dreariness. More often than not, these little moments work best.

That's probably because Bergman's style of comedy relies not on funny lines or even comedic performances. His films are character-driven situational farces, the humor arising from how the characters pathologically mire themselves in almost surreal situations, then spend most of the time trying to extricate themselves from madness of their own making. Get Shorty came closer than any recent film to capturing the hip energy Bergman strives for but fails to recreate here. The In-Laws, which Bergman wrote, and Honeymoon in Vegas and The Freshman, which he wrote and directed, search for the comedic threads buried in inherently unfunny situations, including espionage and wife-swapping, but the results have been erratic. Only The In-Laws, buoyed by Peter Falk and Alan Arkin, sustained an aura of giddy lunacy. You sense that Bergman's confidence that merriment will eventually find its way to the surface is misplaced; he's like the optimist shoveling through a mountain of horseshit, gleefully declaring, "There's got to be a pony in there somewhere!" Actually, there's just horseshit.

What little else the film has to offer is Moore, preening up and down the runway. Moore struts predatorily, and there's virtually no joy in her dancing scenes. She has a look of profound concentration at all times, like she's not enjoying the music so much as trying to master it. Usually, her expression makes her look like she's trying to thread a needle with her tongue. Still, you've got to hand it to her for putting in so much effort, even if she had a $12.5 million motive. She probably upped her asking price once she found out Reynolds would spend most of the movie pawing all over her. She's never been much of an actress, despite effective, totally artificial moments in Ghost and St. Elmo's Fire, but she so wants to be liked, it would be almost cruel to tell her she can't act.

Striptease isn't a very good movie, nor even a deliciously bad one, but I doubt anyone thought this was gonna be another Tootsie. If you derive simple, carnal pleasure from seeing naked bodies bounce around, there's nothing I can say to keep you away from a dog like this. At least you can take some comfort in knowing that admission is cheaper than the two-drink minimum at most men's clubs during happy hour. Or so I've been told.

Striptease. Columbia/Castlerock. Demi Moore, Burt Reynolds, Ving Rhames. Written and directed by Andrew Bergman. Now playing.

 
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