"Dancing at the Blue Iguana" goes backstage at one of those flashy strip clubs that dot the arid industrial neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley to reveal as much of the hearts and souls of the strippers as they do of their bodies.
The film was developed by Michael Radford, the versatile director of "Il Postino," from a five-month period of workshops with the film's actors, who created the characters they were to play.
From the cast's experimentation and improvisation, Radford and co-writer David Linter developed the screenplay. The result is an entertaining melodrama, set during a period of days during which just about everybody at the Blue Iguana goes through a wrenching personal crisis in an overdose of coincidence.
This allows for some extraordinary portrayals, especially on the part of Darryl Hannah and Sandra Oh, but it also prevents the film from rising above the level of heart-tugging soap opera.
With the actors so deeply involved in creating the characters they portray, the predictable result is a screen full of attractive young women who are oh-so-achingly vulnerable and sensitive behind the facade of their bold, uninhibited images while performing.
The film needs at least one no-nonsense character, a levelheaded, detached woman, the kind who in real life helps form the bulwark of the adult entertainment industry, a woman who takes pride in her professionalism, who lobbies for union representation, decent working conditions and regular hours.
The film desperately needs such a woman to stand up for one of the key characters when she makes a reasonable request for time off and to help her respond to a boss who has the temerity to tell her that she has no life outside the club.
The film also needs fewer personal crises and plot twists.
Even if "Dancing at the Blue Iguana" can't rise to the level of the performances of Hannah, Oh and others, it is nonetheless engaging, not without humor and an aura of authenticity.
Hannah's Angel is the Blue Iguana's longtime star. She is a sweet, not overly bright innocent desperate to become a foster parent.
She manages to attract a handsome Russian hit man (Vladimir Mashkov), holed up in the motel next door while he sits out a delay in fulfilling his latest contract murder. (This is the key development the film could do without.)
Oh's brainy Jasmine, on the other hand, is a closet poet whose work is encouraged by the leader (Chris Hogan) of a poetry-reading group that meets regularly at a nearby coffeehouse. Of course, he's sensitive, talented and romantic, but can a woman be a serious poet in love and work as a stripper?
Jennifer Tilly's Jo looks to be a welcome hardheaded contrast to Angel and Jasmine, but she's completely thrown for a loop when she discovers she's pregnant.
Sheila Kelley's Stormy goes into a tizzy when her brother (Elias Koteas) tracks her down and discovers what she's doing for a living.
Club newcomers Jesse (Charlotte Ayanna) and Nico (Kristin Bauer) are likewise vulnerable.
This goes too for the club's manager, Eddie (Robert Wisdom), and his assistant, Bobby (W. Earl Brown), who can lay down the law in maintaining order and discipline but who possess hearts of gold.
For all the clutter, "Dancing at the Blue Iguana" is a well-crafted film, and it must be said that its actresses, in being prepared to come close to baring all for art, reveal stunning figures and perform scorching routines.
"Dancing at the Blue Iguana" is diverting but cannot be taken nearly as seriously as Radford, et al would like.
MPAA rating: R, for pervasive sexual content/nudity, language, some drug content and brief violence. Times guidelines: The film's milieu is sufficiently authentic to be unsuitable for children.
'Dancing at the Blue Iguana'
Darryl Hannah: Angel
Sandra Oh: Jasmine
Jennifer Tilly: Jo
Robert Wisdom: Eddie
W. Earl Brown: Bobby
A Lions Gate release of a Moonstone Entertainment presentation of a Bergman Lustig/Gallery production. Director Michael Radford. Producers Radford, Sheila Kelley, Damian Jones, Graham Broadbent, Etchie Stroh, Ram Bergman, Dana Lustig. Executive producer Samuel Hadida. Screenplay Radford, David Linter. Cinematographer Ericson Core. Editors Roberto Perpignani. Music Tal Bergman, Renato Neto. Costumes Louise Frogley. Production designer Martina Buckley. Art director Trevor Murray. Set decorator Chris Tunney. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
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