Striptease

Sorry, I liked it
Released:
1996

Director: Andrew Bergman

Starring: Demi Moore, Burt Reynolds, Armand Assante, Ving Rhames, Robert Patrick

The Setup:

Demi Moore is forced to become a stripper to fund her custody fight!

Discussion:

This is one of those things I can suddenly become POSSESSED to see, and it was a good choice in this case, as it brings up a number of interesting issues. This movie is adapted from a novel by Carl Hiassen, who is known as another version of Elmore Leonard; that is, he writes comic novels with a sprawling array of low-life characters who all have their amusing schemes and quirks. Apparently the novel of this is quite good. I mention this only so we can discuss how the film dislocates what must have been the charm of the book.

We open with Demi losing custody of her child in a South Florida court. The judge is an elder good ol’ boy who gives custody of the little girl, Angie, to the husband, Darryl, because he is a police informant, and Demi currently doesn’t have a job. Well, she does have a job, but she feels she can’t mention it to the court. Oh by the way, Erin [that’s Demi] used to be a secretary for the FBI. We find out through the credits that this film is written and directed by Andrew Bergman, who also did Soapdish and Honeymoon in Vegas.

So it’s straight to the strip club, the Eager Beaver. We see Burt Reynolds, in blond wig and sans stache, as Congressman Dilbeck, a drunk who needs close minding by his assistant, or he’ll get into embarrassing trouble. They arrive at the strip club while Erin is backstage, fretting about her child and delivering exposition. She worries that her ex-husband “probably doesn’t even think to put a seat belt on” her precious child—played by her real-life daughter, Rumer Willis. Another stripper, one of an ethnically-diverse bunch meant to show us that strippers come from all walks of life, says “This is honest work! You have nothing to be ashamed of,” to which Erin replies “God, eight weeks [that she’s been stripping], and I still get nervous.”

She then goes out on stage and begins her number. The tone here is “Demi Moore is now stripping,” rather than anything expressive of the character. Demi’s body is a movie-star body, much more tight n’ toned than the other strippers, and she chooses the numbingly unerotic music of Annie Lennox to walk through her grim routine to. Dilbeck sees her and drunkenly mutters “an angel appeared,” and some guy gets up on stage and grabs her. Dilbeck bonks him with an empty bottle, and the whole thing is caught on camera by some guy, another obsessed admirer of Erin’s. A scandal is a’brewin’.

Then there’s some drama as some other woman won’t give Erin Darryl’s new address—he has moved with the child, leaving Erin no way to contact her. There’s hugger-mugger with the Congressman, and we see the bouncer at the strip club, played by Ving Rhames, inserting a cockroach into yogurt that he is going to use, on the advice of his lawyer, to sue someone. The nerdy fan who is obsessed with Erin promises to go to Dilbeck and get help with her son by threatening the Congressman, and he soon shows up dead in Armand Assante’s lake. Assante just happens to be a police investigator, and he thoughtfully makes his first appearance with his shirt open. Thanks, Armand.

Meanwhile the lawyer and Rhames plot a much larger blackmail deal, the lawyer’s secretary eats the cockroach without much notice, and Erin gets two hours with her child. Then Erin is back on stage, dancing to Annie Lennox AGAIN! Sweet pea, if the song is called “Cold,” it’s probably not something most people are going to consider hot and sexy. The manager comments on her shit music before asking the women to engage in creamed-corn wrestling, which they refuse, and offers Demi the chance to make a speech about how the club napkins and coasters are degrading. There’s also a funny moment in here where one of the strippers comes backstage and says "Michael Jordan is at table eight!” This has happened before, and we, the audience, begin to assume that they’re going to keep listing off celebrities in the audience without ever showing them. Then, as a little funny surprise, we catch a glimpse of Michael Jordan, actually in the audience. I have to say, in many ways the sly deadpan ensemble comedy here is working.

Meanwhile Armand has shown up and Erin asks him for help getting her daughter back. He agrees, and she doesn’t say thank you, she only mentions how very much she loves her daughter. Soon after he has gotten her husband’s informant status dropped, a big help to Erin—and let’s not forget that child custody is not his field and he’s doing all of this just to be nice—and once more, Erin doesn’t see fit to thank him! I think we’re supposed to understand that the rights of the mother are unimpeachable and not something anyone need express gratitude for.

So then Demi finds out that she's going to have to wait six months, at least, to pursue her child-custody case, which cannot stand, so she goes and kidnaps the kid. Then Congressman Dilbeck sees her, and tells his assistant that he wants "to possess something of hers. Something personal." "How personal?" the assistant asks. "INTENSELY personal," Dilbeck says. Hey wait a minute, was that actually kind of funny? The next thing we see is Demi at the laundromat, and when she leaves, the assistant comes in and looks in her dryer. I thought he must be hoping against hope for a forgotten pair of panties, but no, he steals her dryer LINT and drops it into a little Ziploc bag. At this point I'm like—"It's true: that was actually, honestly funny!" Maybe this movie isn't quite the bust it's made up to be.

Now I don't know if I mentioned that Demi practiced at home in front of the mirror to Annie Lennox's "Little Bird" [can SOMEONE get this chick a new CD?], then she later performs in the club to the same song. STOP. THE. ANNIE. LENNOX. This time her daughter, who is now hanging around backstage at the strip club, comes out and peeks at her mother as she's stripping. Later that night, her daughter asks "Mommy, how come your titties don't move at all when you dance, and look like two unripe cantaloupes duct-taped to your chest?" and Erin says "Well honey, that's because Mommy's boobies are 98.9% plastic, and if mommy died in a desert, ten years later all anyone would find is a skeleton and these two big blobs of rubber cement." Actually, that whole part doesn't happen, but SO could have.

So now the assistant goes backstage at the Young Republicans convention where Dilbeck is scheduled to speak, and finds his boss in underwear, a leather vest and cowboy hat, his entire body covered in Vaseline, huffing Erin's lint. The assistant quits, but Dilbeck makes it out to the Young Republicans, and I had another of those "this is actually funny!" moments when we see people grimacing and discreetly wiping their hands after shaking hands with the recently vaseline-covered Dilbeck.

Meanwhile, Demi runs out to move her car, and her husband jumps up in the backseat and holds a knife to her neck. Demi is not cowed, and Ving Rhames shows up and breaks the guy's arm anyway. There are several moments where, had I been Erin, I would have jumped right on Ving and started planting kisses all over his face, but she never does. She's a fool. Anyway, I mention this whole thing only because Erin comes back in—from having a knife held to her throat—and wearily says "I just had a tiff with my ex." That night her daughter let's her know that she saw her dance, and asks if her tits are made of titanium metal [actually she doesn't], and is all supportive, but Erin feels deep shame at her daughter seeing her like that, and is sure the girl is scarred for life. Well she probably is; poor girl thinks her tits are going to harden like mud cakes when she gets older. The next day Erin and Armand [who has become her protector and cost-free legal advisor] take the daughter to Sea World or something, and Erin repeats her shame to Armand, who doesn't tell her to just get over it. Something about the way Erin is so worried about the little girl as she feeds a dolphin and something about the way it's edited makes it seem like something terrible is going to happen, and I was chucking to myself as I imagined the dolphin leaping up and chomping off the little girl's arm. I could just see it: nice, sweet doodley music, then crash-shift into horror with a slo-mo shot of the girl stumbling back, stump spewing out blood, accompanied by slo-mo close-up of Demi shouting "NOOOOOOOOO!" Plus, the little girl is such a sweet, innocent goody-goody, well, I guess something in me just wants to see her get dismembered.

Anyway, Dilbeck offers Erin $2,000 for a private dance, and she goes, and strips for him to Prince's "If I Was Your Girlfriend." He says he can help her with her kid, and tells her that he had her lint stolen. Now, his second-in-command is listening upstairs, and I love the little reaction shot as though he's going to vomit when Erin asks what he did with her lint and Dilbeck says "I made love to it."

So it all wraps itself up in a way I'll let you discover for yourself, but I will tell you that it involved Darryl on animal morphine. There's also a poorly-shoehorned-in strip sequence that totally distracts from the film's momentum—obviously they had some footage they'd paid darn good money for and they were NOT going to toss it. I think I heard that the original ending was reshot, and there is one element that will make you go "No WAY was this in the original novel." Erin finally says 'thank you' to Armand at the end. And we're supposed to understand that Erin and Ving have this special friendship—he's really hurt that she didn't confide his plans to him—but unfortunately the movie hasn't spent any time building up to this, so it doesn't work.

Sorry, I liked it. If I hadn't "known" that this is supposed to be one of the worst movies ever, I would have thought it was a passably amiable comedy. It's certainly no worse than a lot of other movies out there that do just fine. Let's talk about some of the ways I think it may all have gone wrong.

First, I just don't think the American people were [are] able to mix sexual content like stripping with comedy. I think for them, sex is SERIOUS. Look at the grim, pained look on the faces of Victoria's Secret models. And I don't think most Americans are ready or willing to laugh when they're slinking into a movie to get their illicit thrills from seeing Demi Moore topless. So if you're coming into the movie with that attitude, all of the comedy is going to seem quite out of place and downright bizarre. Especially when you're talking about people putting roaches in yogurt or tripping on animal morphine in the same movie with the DEAD-FUCKING-SERIOUS act of stripping. So I think the movie would have done a lot better financially and critically had it toned down the stripping.

The other thing is that we're basically used to Burt Reynolds playing variations of Burt Reynolds in every movie we see him in, and here he actually has the temerity to play a CHARACTER! A character who is not Burt Reynolds! So that also contributes to the common viewer's feeling that there is just something really going wrong here.

Demi is actually quite charming. She's amusingly low-key and straightforward throughout, and I really liked her in the comedy scenes, and wanted to see her do more comedy. Okay—I just had a TOTAL Demi obsession moment, which had me reading her Wiki page with relish [definitely read the juicy section "Relationship With Her Mother," especially if you're the kind of person for whom the phrase "living in a shack with only $250 a month and an '88 Honda Civic" is irresistible]. I also just added EVERY Demi Moore movie to my list, with special, immediate priority to Disclosure, The Seventh Sign [get it to me NOW!!!] and Parasite. Okay, where were we? Demi is charming. Yeah. Oh, but for some reason, this fun decidedly does NOT carry over into her stripping. I suspect it's because Demi is too aware that she's a big star and is now stripping, and also that, as one of the biggest stars of the time [this movie made her the highest-paid actress in Hollywood for a while], surely she was aware that she must project a positive image for young women out there, and had to carefully modulate the "statement" this movie was making in terms of feminism. In retrospect, it's unfortunate that this leads to such scenes of shame and humiliation over stripping, surely intended to boost the feminist empowerment, but ten years later, it seems like it would have been a much more powerful feminist statement to have her enjoy her body, have fun with it, and not give a fuck what anyone thinks.

Along these lines, the movie is working overtime to let us know that Demi is merely a woman who has fallen on hard times, but is not, repeat, NOT A STRIPPER. That's why it's important for us to know that she used to have a 'respectable' job, that she plans to get out as soon as she can, and that she's doing this for the noblest of intentions—her daughter! This is also why it's important [to the perceived audience] that she be ashamed of stripping. This need to make the audience aware that its heroine is merely in this world but not of it is echoed in the somewhat similar Enough, in which Jennifer Lopez says at one point that she's "not the kind of woman who gets beaten up by her boyfriend." It seems that both of these movies are ostensibly intended to be statements about feminine strength, but in fact betray women in general by dividing women into two camps, the good women who are forced to strip or endure spousal abuse, and the bad women who are just strippers by nature, and are the "kind of women" who get abused. We get some kind of thrill by watching these glamazons slum it, but somehow audience enjoyment is dependent on knowing that they aren't REALLY strippers or abused women. Why? Because the audience needs to identify with its heroine, and no one wants to be a real low-life stripper [except ME], but they would be perfectly happy to be Demi Moore or Jennifer Lopez brought low by life. So long as they could suffer nobly with great lighting and maybe makeup a shade darker. The problem is that it reinforces that certain women ARE strippers at heart, ARE the "kind of women" who get abused, and the implicit message is that they deserve it.

Shit man, I gotta decide if I want to pull this section out and expand it into an essay. Clearly Striptease brings up a number of searing social issues. This is an excellent example of why bad movies are sometimes MUCH more interesting than "good" movies.

Nevertheless, I think that's about all for now. I found this to be a perfectly amiable, pleasant little comedy. Of course it's not perfect, but it's definitely not the worst movie ever. If I didn't know it was supposed to be a notorious turkey I would have thought it was a mildly amusing B-. Go for it.

Should you watch it?

I have to say that I would. Especially if you liked Get Shorty and are into that whole Elmore Leonard-type thing. Or if you're a straight man and you want to see Demi Moore naked.

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