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Hold the Creamed Corn

Striptease captures the essence of Carl Hiaasen's darkly funny novel

Greater love hath no mom than the mom who takes off her clothes at the Eager Beaver.

From this dubious premise, author Carl Hiaasen fashioned the raucously funny novel Striptease, a laugh-out-loud melodrama about white-trash felons, degenerate politicians and assorted other disreputable denizens of South Florida. Erin Grant, the heroine of the book, is a former FBI file clerk who begins a new career as a topless dancer to finance a custody battle for Angela, her seven-year-old daughter, against Darrell, her singularly sleazy ex-husband. (Just how sleazy is this guy? He's a pill-popping petty thief who steals wheelchairs from hospitals and nursing homes, often while using Angela as an unwitting accomplice.) Unfortunately, Darrell isn't the only creep in Erin's life: a degenerate congressman becomes obsessed with her, to the point of risking public scandal. One thing leads to another, would-be blackmailers are turned into messy corpses and Erin finds herself up to her G-string in mortal danger.

In transforming Hiaasen's darkly comic story to the screen, writer/director Andrew Bergman has done a reasonably good job of adaptation and compression. He couldn't possibly do justice to all of the book's subplots and supporting characters -- not if he wanted to make a movie less than two hours -- but he succeeds at giving us the essence of the most important characters. Better still, he has retained bits and pieces of Hiaasen's profanely funny dialogue, so that a strip-joint bouncer might wax nostalgic to two dimwitted bodyguards for the days when no less a figure than Meryl Streep worked at his club. Of course, he notes, that was back in the days when Meryl "used a different name -- Chesty LeFrance."

Much of the deadpan nuttiness in Striptease is reminiscent of the loony twists and turns of phrase in Bergman's original screenplays for The Freshman and Honeymoon in Vegas. Fans of Hiaasen's novel might complain that Bergman has shied away from some of the book's more outrageous elements, and has concocted an upbeat ending that features a much smaller body count than Hiaasen's original. (If the novel qualified as sardonic black comedy, then the movie's humor is closer to a playfully funky gray.) But it would be hard to name another filmmaker more qualified to tackle Hiaasen's novel in the first place, and harder still to name one who could do so with more satisfying results.

But, of course, none of this matters. Because, let's face it, the vast majority of moviegoers -- okay, the vast majority of male moviegoers -- who buy tickets to Striptease will neither know nor care about Hiaasen's novel. Propelled by the hype machinery, they will queue up at the box office with only one thing on their minds: just how spectacular does Demi Moore look as she bares those bodacious ta-tas?

Allow me to provide, strictly as a public service to readers, an answer to that burning question: not bad.

Mind you, we're not talking about full frontal nudity here. And we're not even talking about frequent topless scenes. (Take note: it appears that, for reasons that have less to do with modesty than agility, a dance double is used in two or three shots.) But what there is, is not bad at all.

In fact, Moore might look a little too va-va-voom for the movie's own good. It requires a vigorous leap of the imagination to accept the idea that someone with her attributes -- not to mention her obvious intelligence and feistiness -- would have to settle for a job in a place as thoroughly seedy as the Eager Beaver. Somewhere a bit classier? Like, say, the South Florida equivalent of Rick's? Maybe. But a haven for brawlers and beery sailors? Doubtful. On the other hand, as someone seated near me at a preview screening felt compelled to note: "Look! She's got stretch marks." (He was referring to her stomach, in case you're interested.) Not being an expert on the subject, I'll admit that this minor blemish might disqualify a woman from being a true top-of-the-line ecdysiast.

Then again, maybe we're supposed to think of Moore's Erin as a major element in an ambitious plan to upgrade the Eager Beaver. Orly (Jerry Grayson), the fretful owner of the rowdy nightspot, wants to attract a more upscale clientele, and thinks he can do just that with dancers such as Erin. He doesn't care much for her taste in music -- evidently, she prefers to strip to Annie Lennox numbers -- but as long as she pleases the customers, he won't complain. On the other hand, he is genuinely hurt when Erin bluntly refuses to take part in the Eager Beaver's latest gimmick: creamed-corn wrestling. Orly tries to reason with her: she won't have to be completely nude. In fact, she can't be completely nude: if she were, the health department would complain about her proximity to food products. Erin merely smiles and remarks: "I always did like the health department."

Occasionally, Striptease makes a jarring lurch instead of a smooth transition while shifting from silliness to sentimentality, or from sharp satire to lusty pratfalls. And while the movie as a whole is extremely amusing, it somehow never manages to make that final leap to become as wild and crazy as it initially promises to be. But Moore gives a strong and self-assured performance in the lead role, and she is surrounded by a capable supporting cast that includes her own young daughter, Rumer Willis, as Erin's little girl. Other notables include Robert Patrick as Erin's dangerous ex-husband, Armand Assante as a homicide cop who becomes a valuable (but strictly platonic) friend for Erin and Paul Guilfoyle as a political fixer who will stop at nothing to protect the congressman from his worst impulses during an election year. Burt Reynolds is the congressman, David Dilbeck, and he is thoroughly believable as a sex-crazed buffoon whose kinky agenda includes cowboy boots, boxer shorts and lots and lots of warm Vaseline.

Best of all, there is Ving Rhames (of Mission: Impossible and Pulp Fiction) as Shad, the dry-witted and blunt-spoken bouncer at the Eager Beaver. Rhames doesn't steal the movie so much as he snatches huge juicy hunks of it, like someone lazily devouring a roasted chicken at a picnic. As Shad, he takes it upon himself to serve as Erin's bodyguard. And, yes, he's the one who speaks so fondly of Meryl Streep. He's so convincing, he just might make you start thinking about the Oscar-winning star of Sophie's Choice in an entirely different light.

Striptease.
Directed by Andrew Bergman. Starring Demi Moore, Armand Assante, Ving Rhames and Burt Reynolds.

Rated R.
105 minutes.

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