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Barely Breathing

If the goofballs in Hollywood want to pay Demi Moore 12 million bucks to waggle her butt and flash her chest at a movie camera, so be it. That doesn't mean we have to reimburse them. Striptease contains two or three minutes of softcore T and A, and that is the sum of its substance. As raunchy comedy, as political satire, as a thriller, as the uplifting story of a mother's love for her little daughter--all of which this thing purports to be--the picture is a three-megaton bomb. By comparison, Showgirls suddenly looks like some kind of pseudo-masterpiece.

Striptease is also profoundly dishonest. Start to finish, the only thing it's selling is Moore's body, and the only thing Moore is selling here is her body--but the movie is stuffed with half-baked pieties and slushy moralism insisting that her character, a divorced mother who takes a job as a stripper to get her kid back, does not peddle her flesh, or her soul. Let the epistemologists in the house have a whack at that one, along with the guys wearing raincoats in the back row.

The gory details: When first we see our heroine, one Erin Grant, she's getting nailed in a Miami divorce court; her grimy little psychopath of an ex-husband (Robert Patrick), a guy who steals wheelchairs for a living, has just been awarded custody of their daughter (you bet), while Erin has just lost her job as--what else?--a secretary for the FBI. Writer/director Andrew Bergman, who has previously made inventive comedies like The Freshman and Honeymoon in Vegas, never explains just how this attractive, reasonably civilized woman--a person with hardback books on her shelves and art prints on the walls--got hooked up with her redneck vermin of a hubby in the first place. But that's only the first of his omissions.

Before you can say "table dance," Erin has been beamed up from the buttoned-down confines of FBI headquarters to the pink-neon glare of the Eager Beaver Club. But wait. Do we ever see Erin poring over the want ads, looking for fully dressed work? Nope. Does she have a second thought about the prospect of thrusting her loins at a gaggle of drunken sailors? Apparently not. In fact, for a supposedly reluctant performer, Moore's Erin puts on quite a show--what there is of it. Paying lip service to the movie's fake-puritanical undertone, Erin tells one of the other strippers that after eight weeks, she's still embarrassed to go out there. Then she goes out there and enthusiastically reproduces most of the Kama Sutra to the tunes of Annie Lennox and Billy Idol.

Thus is the moviemakers' actual motive revealed. And thus does our Ms. Moore shed the last vestiges of puritanism clinging to her deathless Hester Prynne.

This is also the moment Bergman cranks up a tired old "plot" with which to fill out the long pauses in his "Demi Half-Naked!" video. There's this drunken, horny U.S. congressman named Davey Dilbeck in the house, see, and he gets the hots for Erin just about the time a regular customer spots him in the place. Dilbeck's up for re-election, of course, and a corrupt Miami sugar baron controls him, and...well, you can figure out the rest. A couple of blackmail plots and a couple of murders later, the batty Southern politician, played by Burt Reynolds, still can't think of anything but his "angel," Erin. In his craziest moment, we find him in an anteroom at a Christian youth banquet, slathered head to foot with Vaseline, fantasizing. Just moments before delivering a big speech on family values.

This is the highest plane of political satire Bergman achieves, and while Reynolds, wearing a silver fright wig and a gape-jawed leer, seems to have the most fun here, we might enjoy him more if we hadn't seen this brand of broad, good-ol'-boy caricature so many times before--most recently in Paul Newman's turn as the randy, wild-eyed ex-governor of Louisiana, Earl Long, who in Blaze went nuts for a buxom stripper played by Lolita Davidovitch.

Striptease's other types are as familiar as old shoes. Ving Rhames is a glowering bouncer-with-a-heart-of-gold who keeps Erin out of trouble and vice-versa; Armand Assante is a slick, good-guy cop; Jerry Grayson is the requisite blustering club owner in the loud sports jacket, lamenting that his business "has lost its humanity." Erin's sisters-in-stripdom are portrayed by Kimberly Flynn, Dina Spybey, Pasean Wilson, Rena Riffel and a dramatically constructed blonde who is called Urbana Sprawl on the screen and Pandora Peaks off it. William Hill plays the customary worshipful loser, Jerry Killian, who never misses an Erin Grant set.

Irrelevant, all of them. Meaningless, everything they do. Despite the window dressing, the only real subjects of this picture are Demi Moore's several protuberances, and of these the movie provides somewhat less than $12 million worth. Meanwhile, consider this moment of great revelation. In an attempt to quell Erin's alleged jitters, one of her fellow performers says of their job: "Hey, this is honest work!" Fair enough. Too bad the makers of Striptease can't make the same claim.

Striptease.
Screenplay by Andrew Bergman, from a book by Carl Hiaasen. Directed by Andrew Bergman. With Demi Moore, Burt Reynolds, Armand Assante and Ving Rhames.

 
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