Jest Barely

This much can be said about Striptease, anyway: It comes closer to capturing the spirit, if not the stature, of Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders than the current film that appropriates that masterwork's title. As one woman forced into a shady lifestyle to another, Defoe's resourceful, foolish, lusty, pious, magnificently human Everywoman would be far more likely to find a friend and confidant in Erin Grant, the heroine of Striptease played by Demi Moore, than in the simp played by Robin Wright in Pen Densham's Moll Flanders. A film as easygoing as Striptease can be hurt by the kind of hype it has received. After the endlessly repeated ads and trailers with that overheated clip of Moore as a club stripper, defiantly doffing that dress shirt, the actual film seems rather sheepishly mild. If you wandered in knowing nothing about the picture, you might think, "Gee, that was flawed but sort of relaxing and funny." Instead, you're likely to think, at best, "What's the big deal?"

Moore's Erin is a Florida woman far more sinned against than having sinned. Her brute of a husband (Robert Patrick), who ekes out a living as a Dade County vice informant and by stealing wheelchairs, has gained custody of their kid (well-played by Moore's real-life daughter Rumer Willis) because, in the opinion of the good-ol'-boy judge, he has a more promising career than his ex-wife; she lost her job as an FBI secretary because of his criminal ways.

Daughter-shorn and desperate for money, Erin takes a job as a topless dancer at a bar called Eager Beaver. She professes to hate it, yet puts astounding effort into it--her routines, self-choreographed to cerebral alternative music, are costumed and lighted so spectacularly that Bob Fosse might not have blushed to put his name on them.

This sort of film begins with the assumption that women who work in strip clubs are a jolly, supportive lot and that a U.S. congressman will just naturally be a stupid, drunken, horny and corrupt bastard--nothing too outrageous so far. A specimen of the latter (cartoonishly but amusingly played by Burt Reynolds, in a ghastly white wig) becomes smitten with Erin one night. A plot ensues involving blackmail and murder that put Erin and her daughter at risk.

Where the film irritates is with its liberal pieties, the easy gibes at hypocritical authority. Making sure that there's a signed picture of Newt Gingrich pointedly in the frame next to Reynolds, or having the randy representative mutter something about why he voted against gun control while he's being shot at are beneath the ability of director Andrew Bergman, who adapted the script from a book by Carl Hiaasen. So is the role of Erin, boringly conceived and written as a paragon of a human being. Fortunately, Demi Moore gets more jaggedness and shading into the character than she has in previous performances--she's a notch or two above her usual plain competence.

Striptease has too many plot turns, and it's too slow in negotiating them--this supposed romp runs around two hours. Overlong though it is, I wouldn't want to see it sped up. The film's meager charm comes from its backwaters--the ambling subplots, Bergman's doodles on the story's margins. I liked the secondary characters, like the burly, deadpan bouncer (Ving Rhames) who carries a pet monkey on his shoulder, or Erin's adoring fan (William Hill) who claims to worship her essence. I also liked the fine details, like the monkey imitating the strippers' moves, or the obsessed fan reading the paper while the other girls dance, then putting it away when Erin comes on.

Bergman uses the Florida setting resourcefully, too. The club manager (Jerry Grayson) mentions that he's been impotent since opening the club, and has been aroused only once, at a porpoise show at Sea World. Later, when Erin chats with a cop (Armand Assante) at a porpoise show, I didn't listen to a word they said--I was busy scanning the bleachers for the poor club manager.

Directed by Andrew Bergman; with Demi Moore, Burt Reynolds, Ving Rhames, Armand Assante, Robert Patrick, and Rumer Willis.

Rated

 
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