Taking It All Off: Comedy and the Grotesque in Carl Hiassen's Striptease
by Alanna Preussner
Even Midwestern kids with the same sheltered upbringing I had knew what pasties were. (For the uninitiated, they're adhesive little doodads that topless dancers used to wear.) Nothing, however, prepared me for the shock of seeing pasties on the menu in a little café in Hibbing, Minnesota. With racy visions of sequins, tassels, and honkytonks dancing through my head, I ordered a pastie-only to discover that pasties are Cornish meat pies, which the iron miners used to carry with them for lunch.
After reading Carl Hiassen's Striptease, a raunchy, hilarious novel about South Florida's sleazy clubs, corrupt politicians, and greedy capitalists, I was ready for a filmic main course. Unfortunately, the movie is just as disappointing as my lunch many years ago. Writer-director Andrew Bergman's film is pallid, slow, and unfunny -- a fact that seems all the more incredible given what it could have been.
Essentially, the movie pulls its punches. Its characters are mildly quirky rather than weird or menacing, its locations are well scrubbed and safe, and the ultimate object of its satire, the unholy marriage between politics and Big Money, appears as vaguely unfortunate business as usual. We could, in fact, read the movie as one long example of Foucauldian containment. The few chances it takes are quickly deflated by Demi Moore's prim earnestness and the muting of Hiassen's truly scary bad guys. Perhaps the only risky psychosexual move was casting Demi Moore's real-life child, Rumer Willis, as her daughter in the film. Little Rumer's presence, especially when she tells her mother that she looks "really pretty" during her strip routine, frankly creeps me out.
Movie-to-film analyses are always tricky, of course, and perhaps they aren't even fair to make in the first place. As a literature person, I am often vaguely discontented by films that just don't live up to their novels' promise. However, in this case, the raw material (and I do mean raw) from Hiassen, a columnist and reporter for the Miami Herald, should have been a good start. As Colette Bancroft says, "His half-dozen crime novels, all set in Miami and its environs, are savagely funny books, full of bizarre characters and twisted plots that strain credibility if you don't know South Florida and hence realize that Hiassen is pretty much just drawing on his news experience" (1).
For those who haven't lived in South Florida or encountered Carl Hiassen yet, let me recommend that you sneak by the browsing section of the public library or the mystery/crime shelves in your local bookstore. His books are a guilty pleasure, but they're also hard-hitting attacks on shoddy politicians, soulless business tycoons, and the casually horrendous rape of the Florida environment. Hiassen's novels are populated by scumbags and wackos, and his plots turn on a dime-from crazy to hilarious to hideously violent. Every time you say to yourself, "This can't get any more grotesque," Hiassen amps up the effects, pushing them even farther over the top. He makes you laugh till you're sick-and perhaps that's exactly the point.
Back to the raw materials in Striptease. The basic story is that Erin Grant (Demi Moore), formerly a secretary at the FBI, is in a mean custody battle with her ex-husband Darrell (Robert Patrick), a lowlife crook whose specialty is stealing wheelchairs. When Erin loses her job and custody of her little girl, she turns to stripping to pay huge legal bills for the appeal. She dances at the Eager Beaver, a "gentleman's club" where she and her fellow performers, including my personal favorite, Urbana Sprawl, are protected by Shad (Ving Rhames), the threatening but sweet bouncer. Throughout the book, Shad reads Camus and works on his big score, getting a gigantic cockroach into a cup of yogurt so that he can sue the manufacturer. Aside from the custody fight, the main business of the movie is a blackmail plot involving Congressman David Dilbeck (Burt Reynolds), a randy and corrupt politician; Malcolm "Moldy" Moldowsky (Paul Guilfoyle), the amoral fixer and influence peddler who keeps him in office; and the Rojo family, who care only about making megabucks through price supports and sweetheart deals. Al García (Armand Assante), a tough cop who befriends Erin, rides in as the cavalry and solves a murder while saving Erin's bacon.
With all those raw materials (and a few more I haven't mentioned, like full-body Vaseline, and dryer lint used as a sex toy), we might well ask what could go wrong. In a word: plenty. I'll discuss several major areas of concern/distress, starting with characters, acting, and direction and ending with the failure of the grotesque in the film.
First, to Demi Moore and her much-touted role as a stripper. Obviously, Moore was well exposed before this movie, as San Francisco Examiner critic Barbara Shulgasser acerbically reminds us: "Of the fact that Demi Moore is an abject exhibitionist -- remember the nude Vanity Fair covers, pregnant and painted?-there can be no doubt. . . . But there is a difference between acting and displaying and I now can see that she has never discerned the distinction" (1). Simply showing her body (by my count, about half a minute of topless footage in a two-hour movie), isn't enough to carry the movie anywhere. Nudity doesn't equal symbolism or significance, as Jim Byerley snidely suggests: "Hester Prynne wore the big red 'A' for 'Adultery.' In Striptease Erin Grant wears an even bigger red 'B' for 'Buffed'" (1)
Demi Moore clearly worked hard to get ready for this role, but she erred by carrying that same grim determination into her performance. For example, during her interminable dance routines (in which she uses almost exactly the same moves as the other dancers, except in different outfits), she looks as though she's straining to get through the set. Janet Maslin has it right when she says that "these scenes suggest not unfettered sexuality but grueling hard work, prodigious efforts by costumer, choreographer, makeup squad, workout coach, and maybe even the Army Corps of Engineers" (1). Joseph McBride agrees: "Hardly a flicker of genuine eroticism exudes from Moore's dourly gymnastic routines on the Eager Beaver runway" (1). There's simply not much teasing going on here.
The conflict between the public persona of Demi Moore and the character she seeks to inhabit is obvious. For years, Demi Moore has marketed her naked body as a commodity, and in this movie at least, the marketing keeps getting in the way. As Joseph McBride explains, "Because this actress/commodity has so energetically displayed her buffed physique for the filmgoing public, it's a tad hypocritical for Moore and Bergman to look down on the slobbering audiences who populate the strip club" (1) To be fair, part of the difficulty lies in Hiassen's rather queasy mixture of feminist ideals and raunchy wish fulfillment. In other words, he's not quite sure what to do with Erin either. In his novel, Erin nails the owner for the club's suggestive name and the dirty pictures on the cocktail napkins, and she leads a near-mutiny over his plans for high-toned creamed corn or pasta wrestling. However, she also takes pride in her craft, despite her need to disconnect by getting into her music. Hiassen tells us that Erin is the only good dancer in the club and that she has a real following, although she's not as well endowed as some of the other women. (One wonders, by the way, if that last statement motivated casting Pandora Peaks as Urbana Sprawl. Peaks, a living poem to plastic surgery, looks as though she's wearing two soccer balls under her skin.)
In Hiassen's book, the dancers and bouncer are completely oblivious to undress. They're just doing their jobs. Hiassen apparently needs to reassure us that Erin isn't just a sex object, but he also turns what could be her feminist outrage into a practical marketing strategy. In strip clubs, Erin thinks,
it wasn't the women who were being used and degraded, it was the men. . . . Her mother thought these places were meat markets, and indeed they were, the meat being the customers. . . . If you knew your stuff, you could work a guy all night and get every last dollar out of his wallet (243).
The banal hucksterism of this approach is obvious, and in the book at least, Erin is sympathetic but not saintly. In real life, Demi Moore apparently took some of the lesson to heart. She was paid $12.5 million for this role, at that time the highest ever for a female lead-or, as Joseph McBride notes, "$6.25 million for each breast" (1) Unfortunately, the product Demi Moore typically sells, the naked body and the can-do persona, here desperately needs a giant shot of humor to save it. Roger Ebert is spot on when he says of Erin Grant, "The woman is brave, heroic and stacked, but she's not funny. The movie's fatal flaw is to treat her like a plucky Sally Field heroine" (1)
The character of Erin Grant is so central to this movie that it's difficult to see how supporting figures could have helped a great deal. Burt Reynolds is fitfully hilarious as the lecherous Congressman who just can't stay away from naked women or bribes from sugar barons. His white hairpiece is weird but actually more attractive than his usual rug. Barbara Shulgasser approves, while launching another backhand at Moore: "Reynolds in a white wig looks like a slim Marlon Brando with good enunciation. Moore, with her dark bangs and wide smile, is starting to look a lot like Marlo Thomas in 'That Girl,' but with larger breasts and more well-defined deltoids" (3).
Armand Assante strives mightily in his cop role, and he is a sympathetic character, but the movie never touches Hiassen's deft treatment of García's cynicism and near burnout. García's deadpan unflappability, such as when he's tracking down the multiple body parts of a murdered gangster and complaining about all the paperwork for each dismembered piece, neatly parallels the ho-hum attitude of the strippers. García isn't shocked or frightened by this sleazy world, and his dark, blunt humor brings to mind the mordant jokes that ER doctors and nurses tell. Would that the movie had given Assante more to do or explained why García takes such a brotherly interest in Erin's mess.
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