Coyote Ugly

Friday August 4, 2000

     Let's be honest here. "Coyote Ugly" may be a bad movie--in fact it is a bad movie--but it's not one of those fiascoes that leave you in a foul mood. Rather, like some odoriferous cheese that drives epicures wild but baffles ordinary folk, it's a bad movie for connoisseurs of the genre, a shameless but very watchable piece of youthful romantic fantasy that will have the cognoscenti shaking their heads in wonder.
     The story of a small-town innocent who moves to New York to, yes, follow her dream, "Coyote Ugly" has a combination of sentimental romance and carefully sanitized raunch that is "Flashdance" all over again. It's a PG-13 date-night movie precisely designed for teens of both sexes: Guys get to admire peekaboo shots of attractive women in breath-constricting clothing, while girls safely swoon over a fairy-tale romance that looks hot and contemporary, but in reality is about as steamy as "National Velvet."
     So wall-to-wall with cliches that practically jostle each other in a rush to get on the screen, "Coyote Ugly" is saved by its complete faith in its gee-whiz situations. An unintentionally preposterous film that encourages chuckles while its heroine is in tears, it defeats all skeptics with its tireless good humor and Energizer Bunny energy level.
     Peppily written (Odyssey Theater veteran Gina Wendkos gets the credit), "Coyote Ugly" is directed by first-timer David McNally, who brings the brisk pacing and perpetually sunny outlook of television commercials (he's directed lots, including one for Budweiser that Entertainment Weekly voted the Top Super Bowl Spot of 1999) to the material at hand. Like a shark, this movie threatens to die whenever it stops moving, but reflective moments (this is a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced film after all) are thankfully rare.
     Critical to the film is its choice, made after the de rigueur nationwide talent search ("We left no stone unturned," the director insists) for the right actress to play Violet Sanford, a 21-year-old pizzeria waitress in South Amboy, N.J., who, not surprisingly, dreams of life beyond sausage and pepperoni.
     Getting the role was Piper Perabo, also seen as straight-arrow FBI agent Karen Sympathy in "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," and her guileless, trusting face does make her the obvious choice. Part snubbed urchin, part well-scrubbed kewpie doll, all wide-eyed innocence, Perabo brings so much earnestness to the part she wouldn't have been out of place as one of the gang who helped Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney put on shows in the Andy Hardy movies of long ago.
     Did anyone mention that Violet has a dream? Though her father Bill (the always reliable John Goodman), a hefty toll-taker on the New Jersey Turnpike, doesn't understand, his daughter is compelled to move the 42 miles to the city to see if she can make it as a songwriter. After all, if you can make it there, you can . . . well, you get the idea.
     So, though she deserves to have rose petals strewn before her, Violet moves to Chinatown, where they throw fish heads instead, to a fifth-floor walk-up grungy enough to disconcert Limp Bizkit. The only place she can work on her music is the building's beautifully lit roof, where she gets inspired by the sounds of the city. Yes, she really does. All Violet wants is for someone like Whitney or Mariah to sing her songs, but bad-tempered music business receptionists--the fools--barely acknowledge her presence.
     Violet does have a cute-meet with the cutest guy in Manhattan, Kevin O'Donnell (Adam Garcia), an Australian short-order cook who, like all fairy-tale princes, has a soft and pleasing accent. They don't get on at first--big surprise--but Kevin really believes in her music and, through an obligatory series of bogus crises, tries to help her overcome her crippling stage fright and get out there and sing her stuff herself.
     Meanwhile, Violet's kindergarten-teacher looks and pizzeria-honed people skills get her a job at the hottest bar in Manhattan, Coyote Ugly. Owned by tough-talking, no-guff-taking Lil ("ER's" Maria Bello in the film's best performance), Coyote is one of those post-feminism establishments that announces it's OK for women to act like sex toys if they do it with attitude and sass.
     So Coyote's female bartenders (played by Izabella Miko, Bridget Moynahan and, very briefly, Tyra Banks, whose character is soon off to law school) dish out hostility with the alcohol, whipping the tired businessmen and sailors on shore leave in the audience into the kind of carefully staged bacchanalian frenzy that makes AA meetings look awfully appealing.
     When they're not taunting men, the women dance on Coyote Ugly's bar. Not just simple clog dances, thank you very much, but tightly choreographed Las Vegas-style routines through flames that are so elaborate that the film employs not only dance doubles, body doubles and leg doubles but, in what might be a Hollywood first, a fire leg double as well. (Sad to say, Perabo doesn't sing her own Dianne Warren-written songs either; the honor goes to LeAnn Rimes. And that's not a working photographer taking pictures at the bar, it's veteran Bruckheimer director Michael Bay.)
     Naturally Violet, whom Lil cleverly nicknames "Jersey," makes all the first-timer mistakes possible, but gosh darn it if her spunky determination doesn't count for a lot even here. Wouldn't it be a kick if the self-assurance she gets from entertaining inebriated New Yorkers could translate into a loving relationship with Kevin and the confidence she needs to belt out those songs all by herself? Thank goodness the creators of "Coyote Ugly" can take those predicaments seriously; that way, no one else has to.

Coyote Ugly, 2000. PG-13, for sensuality. A Touchstone Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films presentation, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director David McNally. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Chad Oman. Executive producers Mike Stenson, Scott Gardenhour. Screenplay Gina Wendkos. Cinematographer Amir Mokri. Editor William Goldenberg. Costumes Marlene Stewart. Music Trevor Horn. Production design Jon Hutman. Art directors Gae Buckley, Bruce Alan Miller. Set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Piper Perabo as Violet Sanford. Adam Garcia as Kevin O'Donnell. Maria Bello as Lil. Melanie Lynskey as Gloria. Izabella Miko as Cammie. Bridget Moynahan as Rachel. Tyra Banks as Zoe. John Goodman as Bill Sanford.

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