Skin Diving

Striptease may not be as precious as pure platinum or solid gold, but for most of its nearly two-hour running time the film is tauter than its $12.5 million star Demi Moore's washboard abs, and almost as funny as last year's crime-fiction-best-seller-turned-hit-movie Get Shorty. Viewers who would rather club Madonna than endure another disaster like 1995's Showgirls can rest easy; this stripper flick peels off laughs as effortlessly as Demi sheds a teddy.

When converting books into movies, filmmakers tend to fall for one of two traps: They either strictly adhere to the letter of their source material no matter how inconsequential the detail, or they swing to the opposite extreme and interpret the original work so loosely as to render it unrecognizable. Writer/director Andrew Bergman (Honeymoon in Vegas) struts confidently down the center of that runway, relying on his own quirky comedic touch to flesh out Carl Hiaasen's caustic novel. As Get Shorty director Barry Sonnenfeld did with Elmore Leonard's cynical tale, Bergman plays up the humor in his screen adaption of Hiaasen's text. But where Hiaasen's novel (as well as Leonard's) integrated wicked comedy with drama and built to a suspenseful, violent showdown, Bergman keeps his movie lighthearted and refuses to let any of his major players get seriously hurt. (After test audiences responded negatively to a dark, loyal-to-the-book climax, Bergman shot a new ending that will gag Hiaasen readers with its sweetness.) But as long as it sticks to the irascible spirit and cruel whimsy of Hiaasen's prose, Bergman's feisty film puts on a hell of a show.

The central narrative still pits exotic dancer/single mom Erin Grant (one of Moore's better performances seems destined to be overshadowed by her awesomely sculpted physique, which makes a potent case for the aesthetic benefits of strict exercise and selective cosmetic surgery) against the evil Big Sugar interests bankrolling the political career of corrupt, sex-crazed, alcoholic congressman from South Florida David Dilbeck (Burt Reynolds has the time of his life A and the role of his career A playing the love-struck miscreant). Hiaasen's novel succeeded despite the male author's inability to get under his female protagonist's skin; likewise, Bergman's film makes no attempt to expose Erin's inner workings other than to emphasize her love for her seven-year-old daughter Angela (endearingly played by wide-eyed Rumer Willis, real-life offspring of Moore and her Planet Hollywood-shilling spouse Bruce).

Bergman works in most of the novel's eccentric characters and convoluted subplots: Erin fights an uphill legal battle against her pill-popping ex-hubby Darrell (Robert Patrick, best known for his turn as Ahnuld's murderous, morphing nemesis in Terminator 2, making for a memorably funny-scary white-trash scumbag) for custody of Angela. Shad (Ving Rhames flexing hitherto unseen comedic muscle), the menacing bouncer at the Eager Beaver lounge -- Erin's subtly named place of employment -- concocts shaky insurance fraud scams when he doesn't have his hands full keeping the Eager Beaver's customers (as well as its dancers) in line. Shad's boss Orly (Jerry Grayson reveling in his character's slimy side) tries to outduel his tittie bar competition by luring away "stars" such as Lorelei the snake charmer, or by promoting exotic attractions like creamed corn wrestling. And police detective Al Garcia (Armand Assante, laying on the Pacino/De Niro schtick a bit too thickly) comes to Erin's aid after someone murders her most ardent admirer, Jerry Killian (William Hill), who, just before his death, had initiated a blackmail plot against Congressman Dilbeck in an attempt to help Erin get a leg up in her custody battle.

Striptease may be Bergman's film, but there's no mistaking Hiaasen's warped sense of humor in Shad's get-rich-quick schemes gone awry, Dilbeck's kinkiness, or Darrell's forearm splint improvised from the head and shaft of a golf club. The film is at its most hilarious in bits such as these. Reynolds-as-Dilbeck extolling the virtues of Vaseline-filled boots to a disgusted aide is the stuff of inspired comedy and pointed political satire. Just as Bergman's Honeymoon in Vegas affectionately parodied that town's legendary appetite for gaudy excess, his Striptease celebrates the nudie bar milieu, setting a madcap tone that gooses customers and dancers alike without ever losing sight of their humanity. Bergman exploits the setting more for laughs than for titillation, minimizing the sleaze factor by gently asserting the nobler tendencies of a pathetic patron like Killian, who worships Erin from afar.

Bergman also underplays the dollar-hungry hardness of many real-life strippers, and instead infuses the dressing room of the Eager Beaver with a sort of sorority girl camaraderie. The filmmaker wants us to believe that deep down inside, Erin A and by extension most strippers A is really just a nice girl forced into the skin trade by circumstances beyond her control; she wouldn't be dancing for dollars if her incorrigible ex's criminal record hadn't gotten her fired from a clerical job at the FBI. Even Erin's clueless co-workers such as Urbana Sprawl (filmmaker Russ Meyer's current lady love Pandora Peaks, whose name accurately describes her hyperinflated mammaries) are depicted more as wayward romantics than as jaded mercenaries.

That simplistic, benevolent pitch serves Bergman's movie well until it unravels in the final act. Gut-bustingly funny as Striptease gets, the movie could use a dash of Hiaasen's killer instinct. Dispatching villains in bizarre, ironic fashion is a Hiaasen hallmark; Bergman likes his bad guys too much to bump them off. The director holds down the body count and completely reworks Hiaasen's ending in order to make his Striptease as audience-friendly as possible. A pity. Sonnenfeld understood that the threat of violence running through Get Shorty brought the humor into sharper relief. Bergman's inability to pull the trigger forces him to contrive a silly, slapdash denouement that denies viewers the pleasure of seeing felonious scoundrels get their just deserts. Like Erin Grant, Striptease hints at the possibilities of a powerful, satisfying climax, but it never delivers the goods. The movie tantalizes like a pro but ultimately dances away just out of reach.


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