Demi Does Dull Us

 Striptease

area theaters

TWO STRIPPERS, FLIPPING through a magazine, arrive at a picture of Steven Spielberg. "Oh, what a cute beard!" squeals one. "Yours or his?" sneers the other. HA HA ha ha--huh? Is this a joke about pubic hair? Or is the first dancer supposed to be a closeted dyke? I was less amused than confused during Striptease, a "comedy" so devoid of a point that even the labored, clumsy gags seem to get lost mid-stream. Admittedly, the fault may be mine. This movie could well be so relentlessly tedious, stupid, and hackneyed that I was driven by boredom to imagine perplexing subtexts.

Reliving the slow-witted details of the cancerous plot would put me to sleep, so let's just say quickly that Erin (Demi Moore) loses custody of her child (Moore's daughter Rumer Willis) because she doesn't have a job. To make enough money to retrieve Angela from the clutches of her criminal ex-husband, Erin becomes a stripper. (Uh, wait a sec...) Such a swell stripper does she become that a pussy-drunk congressman (Burt Reynolds, eating shit) wants her for his very own. A threatened public exposé of the family values-lovin', sugar industry-protectin' Rep. Dilbeck gets tangled up with Erin's custody suit, and soon mother and daughter are in mortal danger.

This being post-Home Alone comedy at its worst, the bad guys are such slavish nincompoops they're willing to believe Meryl Streep started out in strip joints (huh huh huh... a dig at Hollywood whoredom maybe? Nah). This being, more surprisingly, post-Porkies comedy at its best, the initial scene at the Eager Beaver bar features a blonde with such gargantuan tits they should be christened--Silicon Valley, perhaps? (I don't recall if the actual character rates a name.) Only Erin and her bouncer buddy Shad (Ving Rhames) exhibit anything approaching the complexity of plankton.

Not that I would call Moore's character deep. She wasn't paid $12.5 million to think. (Why does Indecent Proposal suddenly spring to mind?) Striptease's one suspenseful moment comes when Erin first hits the runway, and the audience collectively holds its breath and/or balls: How will Moore look naked? Will she be able to dance? Can Demi do Dallas? Well, if you caught the Barbara Walters special, you know the answer to the latter questions is yes, Demi can finesse a pelvic grind with the ease, if not the enthusiasm, of Elizabeth Berkley. Once witnessed, this sight rapidly loses its thrilling novelty.

What's amazing is that--even peeled down to a G-string--Moore does not seem naked. Not exactly. Partly it's because her thighs are so built she appears armored. (What's the difference between a stripper and a famous actress playing a stripper? A personal trainer.) But it's also because Moore remains such a cold, unaffecting performer. Even clothed and tearing up over her daughter (who sees her mother "dance"--as Rumer does in real life), Erin communicates nothing to me so much as Moore's unflagging self-interest.

And so, unmoved, unbothered, my thoughts wandered and wondered. For bearing however many kids, Moore sure shows off some softball-firm breasts. Why do recent Hollywood stripteases all seem to be choreographed by Paula Abdul? When Erin and Angela go to Sea World and watch dolphins leap for fish, is writer/director Andrew Bergman comparing the humiliating routines of strippers and Flippers? How many real-world strippers are cheered for completing a somersault? What's funny about a big black man reading The Wall Street Journal, and having a monkey for a pet?

Like an inexperienced customer at Déjà Vu, Striptease cannot decide whether "exotic" dancing is a ridiculous freak show or a turn-on: Erin melts the collar of every man in the Eager Beaver, but the other dancers either get choked by uncooperative pythons or hardly have the brains to breathe on their own. For all her skill (because of it?), Erin desires only to leave the business. In similar fashion, Rhames's Shad, as Erin's friend and the bar's bogeyman, is meant to both mock and reinstate whites' fearful expectations of burly black men. Gruffly dignified, Rhames runs away with the clumsy satire and makes it sweet and sour. Still, I thought, here's a happy twist: nigger with a heart of gold.

At movie's end, the row of middle-aged white men behind me gave a thumbs sideways and proclaimed: "Ving stole the movie!" For Rhames's sake, I hope he unloads the goods and fast.

 
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