Full of Sand
You’ve seen the trailer for Coyote Ugly: Girls dancing on a bar. Girls in tight leather pants stomping their cowboy boots in time with INXS, sliding between each other’s legs, dousing each other with pitchers of ice water. Girls flinging their lusciously long hair for a crowd of yee-hawing guys. It looks like some kind of fun, the kind that would have been so transgressive and wild back in, oh, say, 1956. These days, such imagery is more ridiculous than rebellious, but still, the movie’s promotional staff has been working overtime to publicize its “do-me feminist” theme: in the year 2000 when Stuff magazine and The Man Show rule (dude!) girls are baring it all because they feel empowered and emancipated when they do so. And if you need a clue, follow the bouncing newbie, the perky small-town blonde who becomes a better woman for surviving her trials and traumas in the big city.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the plot of countless movies about girls growing up into stars of some kind, from Ruby Keeler in Footlight Parade and Katharine Hepburn in Stage Door, to any of the Star Is Borns, to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. This last is an especially resonant precursor, being the film that put producer Jerry Bruckheimer on the blockbuster map, way back in 1983. Since then, of course, Bruckheimer’s action flicks (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Bad Boys, Con Air, etc., many made with his late partner Don Simpson) have reigned supreme at the box office. And because his biggest successes are aggressively guy-focused, the return here to a girl’s story almost seems nostalgic. What’s more surprising, frankly, is that for the first forty minutes or so, the girls and women in Coyote Ugly are almost respectable, as characters. They’re less reduced to t&a (as you’d guess from the trailer) than they are passionately independent, passably intelligent, and definitely not taking any shit from their over-stimulated male bar patrons, whom one “coyote” describes as having “little toddlers in their pants.” (Put another way, they are in much better shape than any woman character in Paul Verhoeven’s insipidly misogynistic and mean-spirited Hollow Man, opening down the way from this film at your multiplex.)
The first scenes of the film take place far from its primary location, the excessively stylized and very white East Village saloon, named Coyote Ugly and based loosely on a “real” joint. At first, pretty Violet (Piper Perabo) is working her last shift at a South Amboy, New Jersey pizza parlor, where everyone knows her name, as well as the fact that she’s about to embark on a new life. Within minutes, she’s saying sad goodbyes to her tollbooth-clerking dad (John Goodman) and her best chum since childhood, Gloria (Melanie Lynskey), who has a broad NJ accent even though Violet has none (Violet being the Perfectly Bland Neutrogena Model Girl). Gloria drives Violet across the bridge 42 miles to her new downtown crib, which is seedy and small, decidedly less unbelievably grand than Flashdance‘s loft, but still affording a rooftop where Violet can play her keyboard and sing her heart out; or rather, LeAnne Rimes sings Diane Warren pop-ballads, while Perabo lip-synchs; or rather again, according to the press materials, Rimes “embellishes” Perabo’s vocals.
So here’s the sort-of twist: Violet wants to be a songwriter, not a singer. Because she has terrible stage fright, she believes that her talent is composition. Just her luck, in this day and age, singer-songwriters are the thing, and so she must perform your work to get noticed. Though her apartment is burgled one night to illustrate how down on her luck she’s feeling, Violet remains even more resiliently naïve and sugary than Jennifer Love Hewitt in Time of Your Life, determined to “leave a tape” and be discovered (eventually, she learns that she needs to have a neato carefully product-placed Mac and burn her songs onto CDs to get an audition). One agency receptionist, played by Ellen Cleghorn (and what is her career up to these days?) snaps Violet (and us) to quick, hilarious attention with a monologue that’s more in touch with NYC reality than anything else in the movie. But this is a momentary diversion, and soon enough, we’re back on track, following our girl through the standard melancholy montage-time: traipsing from agency to agency, writing more goopy girl music on the roof, and finally, drawing much-needed (as in, welcome to the twenty-first century!) inspiration from a B-Boy practicing his moves in an apartment across the way.
Though Violet meets the ideal boyfriend on her first day in town (a charming Australian named Kevin, played by Adam Garcia), the film banks on her sense of professional rejection and desperation, which makes it okay for her to take a job at Coyote Ugly. She discovers the place when she sees three dancer-bartenders at a cafe after work, flashing their cash and even executing a few moves for the late-night diners. Don’t look away during this scene, because it comprises two of Tyra Banks’ seven or so minutes on screen, as her character Zoe is heading off to law school (don’t even ask), thus opening up a spot for a new “coyote” at the not-quite-legal establishment. The other girls are first-time feature actors and buxom lasses, the kind Adam Corolla and company calls “juggies”: Izabella Miko plays the ever-so-nice Cammie, Bridget Moynahan the hard-hearted Rachel (she of the fire-breathing gimmick in the tv ads). These two opposites give Violet a place to fit in between: self-confident but not too belligerent about it. All the “Bar Belles,” including Maria Bello, who plays the bar’s owner named, of course, Lil, are featured in this month’s Maxim magazine, wearing various black leather outfits. The accompanying text approximates actual interviews (Perabo: “I’m not a tropical drink girl. A can of Schaefer is fine”; Banks: “I can show people that I have a crazy side and that I’m not just a sex kitten”), but it’s clear enough what’s important about these girls: they’re ready to party.
Perhaps more intriguingly, they’re long past Ally McBeal’s “post-feminist” yearning and uncertainty. They’re unapologetic, self-assertive, and full of sand. With such excellent role models, can there be any doubt that Violet will become a star? At work, she learns to toss bottles while pouring shots, dance on the bar, and pacify drunken-asshole customers. Miraculously, during a near-riot one night, she also learns that she can sing in front of a live audience, even if only along with the (creaky) Coyote Ugly jukebox faves, Don Henley, Def Leppard, Blondie, and the Stray Cats. And wouldn’t you know, with just the right amount of needling from her coworkers, loving support from Kevin (oh yeah, him), and a mix of guilt-tripping/conditional-loving from dad, Violet takes the appropriate risks and learns some crucial lessons about herself. After all the semi-outrageous bar-behavior, the film’s speedy descent into conventional melodrama and moral punchlines does seem a bit silly. But it’s also instructive. The coyotes are total pop-packages, the Supreme Chicks, trashy and hip, but with a vague air of autonomy, almost like they’ve thought up their dance-moves and attitudes themselves.