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In the world of Striptease, there's no place for warmth

by Gary Susman

STRIPTEASE. Directed by Andrew Bergman. Written by Bergman, adapted from the novel by Carl Hiaasen. With Demi Moore, Burt Reynolds, Armand Assante, Ving Rhames, Robert Patrick, and Rumer Willis. A Columbia Pictures release. At the Copley Place, the Janus, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

Striptease opens with a close-up of a man's wet Speedo-clad butt, letting you know that, despite all the hype -- about Demi Moore getting paid $12.5 million to show what newsstand visitors can often see for free on the cover of Vanity Fair -- this movie will be about equal-opportunity objectification and exploitation. That is, no one, male or female, comes out of this one with his or her dignity unscathed.

Granted, Striptease is not a disaster like that other expensive ecdysiast extravaganza, Showgirls, though if it were, it might at least have some redeeming camp awfulness to enliven its otherwise dull mediocrity. A more relevant comparison is to the movie Striptease wants to be, Get Shorty. Like that Elmore Leonard adaptation, this version of Carl Hiaasen's novel tries to blend comedy, pulpy action, and generous helpings of Florida sleaze and corruption. But Get Shorty also had a generosity of spirit (mostly embodied in John Travolta) that kept everything buoyant, something that Striptease lacks entirely. With few exceptions, the film's attitude toward its characters is mean and condescending, and its ugly, misanthropic stench sticks to them all.

This cynicism is especially disappointing coming from writer/director Andrew Bergman, who managed to find something redeeming in even seemingly evil or misguided characters in underworld comedies from The In-Laws to The Freshman and Honeymoon in Vegas. Moore plays Erin Grant, an FBI secretary who loses her job because of her association with thieving, pill-popping ex-husband Darrell (Robert Patrick). Once unemployed, however, she also loses custody of young daughter Angela (Rumer Willis, Moore's real-life daughter). To pay for her custody appeal, Erin gets a job at the Eager Beaver, a Fort Lauderdale topless joint. (Of course, she could just hock her late-model Volvo and showroom-quality furniture and move out of her sprawling bungalow, but I guess she has to live in a style befitting a Demi Moore character.) Darrell tries to estrange his daughter from her mother; we know he's a louse because he moves without giving Erin a forwarding address, leaving Angela's dolls decapitated in his abandoned house (surely an unpardonable sin to as celebrated a doll collector as Moore). Desperate, Erin snatches Angela and leaves her in the care of the girls at the club (what, she couldn't find a sitter?).

At the Eager Beaver, it's strictly look-but-don't-touch. One night, a customer gets too close to Erin and is whacked on the head by a drunken, dirty old man who is himself taken with Erin. He turns out to be David Dilbeck (Burt Reynolds, achieving a transcendent, Zen-like level of self-abasement that surpasses even his post-Loni talk-show appearances). He's a Republican congressman in the pocket of a local sugar-plantation-owning family whose members will happily resort to blackmail and violence to protect their interests. Erin soon finds herself pursued by her drug-addled ex, the loose-cannon legislator, and murderous goons.

Erin is a feminist stripper. We know this because she dances only to Annie Lennox tunes and objects to the word "stripper" as belligerently as Pamela Lee does to being called "babe" in Barb Wire. Still, even she has second thoughts about her Take Our Daughters To Work policy. After the tyke sees her dance, Erin worries, "One day, she's going to realize, `Hey, that's my mother.' " (Moore herself apparently had no such worries.) Also, for all her self-sufficiency, Erin depends on two men to rescue her from dangerous scrapes: a nice-guy cop (an uncharacteristically bland Armand Assante) and a chivalrous bouncer named Shad (Ving Rhames, whose sly stoicism in an otherwise stock role is the chief reason to see the movie).

Not that it's a bad idea to have Moore play a stripper -- excuse me, exotic dancer. She certainly does a splendid job of that as Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However, she's hardly any less cartoonish here in the flesh. As in the Disney film, she's built like a comic-book superheroine, with muscles in places you didn't even know there were places. There's something unreal about her; though she sheds her clothes, she can't shed her Demi-ness. With her in-your-face assertions of her own right -- nay, her duty -- to exploit herself, she proves once and for all that more Moore is less.