Jerry Bruckheimer is one smart fella. Seventeen years ago, he and his producing partner, the late Don Simpson, unveiled "Flashdance," which mined box-office gold from dippy empowerment and girlie-show prurience. The film was the standard-bearer of its trashy genre until 1995, when "Showgirls" went it one better by embracing, not excusing, its own sleazy awfulness.
Bruckheimer has learned the "Showgirls" lesson. Created in tandem with his latest directorial stooge, David McNally, "Coyote Ugly" is designed to titillate the rubes while giving more sophisticated audiences plenty of sophomoric melodrama to guffaw at.
Surely Bruckheimer can't be serious about the rags-to-wet-T-shirts tale of Violet Sanford (Piper Perabo), a New Jersey pizza waitress who moves to New York City with a heart full of dreams and a head full of cotton. An aspiring songwriter, Violet strides into the William Morris Agency and hands the receptionist her demo tape. "I just want to leave this for Whitney or Mariah," she explains.
Tin Pan Alley is less than impressed. (Oh, cruel New York!) To pay her bills, Violet takes a job at the hottest night spot in town. At "Coyote Ugly," the staff is the show: Model-gorgeous mixologists dance on the bar, spraying water on themselves and the crowd, and smacking customers when they get too friendly. One, Rachel (Bridget Moynahan), even lights the bar on fire, gyrating through the flames while patrons' eyebrows somehow stay unsinged. The place makes Hooters look like IHOP.
These scenes -- the film's raison d'smut -- are gloriously shot and edited, so breathtaking in their soft-porn audacity that we barely have time to wonder why the musical menu at Manhattan's "hot" new bar makes copious use of old Def Leppard hits. A panderer to the end, Bruckheimer is less interested in depicting the Big Apple honestly than in supporting Peoria, Ill.'s conception of it.
Violet's stint at Coyote Ugly draws the ire of her disapproving dad, Bill (John Goodman, so steely-eyed and tight-lipped that he instead seems to be preparing to fend off a home invasion). Another stumbling block is her up-and-down relationship with Kevin O'Donnell (Adam Garcia), a pretty-boy chef who's likewise frustrated by her lack of ambition. Despite his Irish surname, Kevin is an Aussie, a background Garcia signifies by delivering his every line as if he were the voice-over in an Outback TV ad.
"Coyote Ugly's" main flaw is that it just isn't bad enough. Yes, the dialogue is wretched and the plot makes predictability a sport. But too few scenes are set in the bar, preventing Perabo's Coyote sisters from turning in the comprehensively atrocious performances of which they appear eminently capable. That burden falls on the star, whose acting is certainly unprofessional but seldom as out-and-out dreadful as the job requires. Show Perabo some sympathy; that Elizabeth Berkley is a tough act to follow.