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Watering Down the Drinks

Hey, wasn't Coyote Ugly supposed to serve up sex and alcohol?

Okay, so there are these beautiful ladies in tight clothes, right? And -- get this -- they serve alcohol while dancing suggestively! Sound cool? How about we make a movie about them? The premise oughta be enough to draw in the guys, and we'll call it "female empowerment" so their dates'll go along. What more do you need in a film?

In the case of Coyote Ugly, someone apparently thought the answer was "an especially formulaic plot that pushes the titular bar into the background while moralistically wagging its finger at the sensuality of it all." It's sad, really, because there probably could have been a decent story to tell that actually focused on the bar, based upon a real establishment of the same name in New York. Instead, we get the same old small-town-girl-seeks-fame routine. Our heroine, Violet (Piper Perabo), is a beautiful and talented singer-songwriter (songs voiced by LeAnn Rimes and written by the omnipresent Diane Warren), but there's one hitch: She has (hold your breath) a serious case of stage fright! If she could only overcome that, the film would have us believe, she'd be an instant megastar.

Whatever. The first half of the movie is actually a reasonably entertaining trifle, with Violet and her Pepto Bismol-chugging best friend, Gloria (Melanie Lynskey), packing up in preparation for the trip to the big city as Dad (John Goodman) fusses and grumbles about his little girl leaving him all alone. Once Violet gets to the city, she tries shopping around her demo tape, only to find that (gasp) talent agency receptionists are rude! She seems to have finally struck gold when she encounters handsome Australian club owner Kevin (Adam Garcia), but it turns out to be an elaborate practical joke when the man is revealed to be a lowly cook. He does, however, turn out to be the Perfect Man, with his self-deprecating sense of humor, smooth dance moves, shapely body and... comic-book collection?

Lowering the bar: The girls of Coyote Ugly have all the character of flat beer.
Patrick Demarchelier
Lowering the bar: The girls of Coyote Ugly have all the character of flat beer.

Yes, believe it or not, Kevin's in debt to some shady characters because he's desperate to own a copy of the issue of Spider-Man that featured the debut of the Punisher. Desperately seeking cash herself, Violet happens to be in a diner when she overhears three beauties counting their money. No sooner has one of the beauties (Tyra Banks) announced that she's leaving the bar where they work, than Violet overhears the expository phrase "She's gonna be impossible to replace!" Soon enough Violet's a "Coyote" (the bar's name is a term used to describe a particularly unattractive guy whom one might wake up next to), and we get what we've paid for: girls dancing atop the counter to classic rock while pouring water on each other. Unfortunately, none of these sequences was shot in the actual Coyote Ugly, which may explain why the location seems like a generic movie bar.

And then the artificial post-midpoint crises occur. Dad and Kevin both disapprove of Violet shaking her thing. A major character faces a life-threatening situation. And some grievous misunderstandings occur, only to be easily resolved in sitcomlike fashion. If you make it this far through the film, don't walk out, as Goodman gets some good physical comedy bits toward the end.

Rated PG-13, Coyote Ugly is fully in keeping with the rule of Jerry Bruckheimer-produced films: The R-rated ones are fun (The Rock) while the PG-13 ones are not (Armageddon, Gone in 60 Seconds). Sorry, Jerry, but you just can't do a big loud testosterone flick and hold back on the sex and violence like you do here. Strip all those juicy distractions away, and there's nothing left but formula. As a matter of fact, this film is as much of a departure from Bruckheimer's usual style as we're likely to see: No one dies, the editing runs at a leisurely pace, and tinted filters aren't gratuitously obvious. The director, newcomer David McNally, was presumably hired for his previous work on commercials and rock videos (like Michael Bay and Simon West before him), but apparently someone forgot to tell Bruckheimer that McNally's most prominent videos were for Celine Dion.

Most offensive of all is the subtle moralizing, the idea that Violet can be empowered by working at Coyote Ugly, yet must rise above such debauchery to be truly happy. Bruckheimer has never been a prude. Is this his attempt to placate feminists? As pro wrestler The Rock would say, know your role, Jerry: You make guy movies. You'll never be Nora Ephron. As for Perabo, she certainly looks great. But after a while, her face becomes tedious, with its range of expressions from bemused grin to ultrawide bemused grin all the way through to trembling-through-tears bemused grin. Garcia is a better bet for breakthrough star, channeling more charisma than that other handsome young Aussie of the summer, Heath Ledger. Goodman is better than the rest of the cast put together. And with the exception of Maria Bello as the hardened bar owner, none of the Coyote girls makes a strong impression. Given the prices of movie tickets, popcorn and sodas, you might as well take your money to a strip club instead. The ladies may not serve you alcohol, but they won't try to distract you with a plot.

 
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