Girl power

Coyote Ugly turns the tables on sexual politics

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Cocktail in a head-on collision with Flashdance, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced crowd-pleaser Coyote Ugly has a familiar ring. Jersey girl Violet Sanford (Piper Perabo) flees a fleabag town whose principal export is a crop of eager young girls who crash and burn upon contact with Manhattan's ozone. She leaves behind a disgruntled daddy (John Goodman), a meatbally lug whose ass mark is undoubtedly worn into his La-Z-Boy, to make her fortune as a songwriter in New York City. But every time Violet gets her foot anywhere near a music industry door, someone slams it on her. After a disastrous string of meetings with music company secretaries, Violet takes a job as one of the leather-clad hotties dishing out Jack Daniels and bumping and grinding at the Coyote Ugly bar. Based on the New York bar Hogs and Heifers (where celebrities like Julia Roberts decorate the bar with their bras), Coyote Ugly's reputation is built on the outrageous, sexually provocative cavorting of honky tonk babes who dance on the long Coyote bar, juggle liquor bottles and wear a fantasy wardrobe of rock star-meets-Frederick's of Hollywood. There's the bitchy brunette Rachel (Bridget Moynahan), the Russian tease Cammie (Izabella Miko) and the black girl Zoe (Tyra Banks), who soon relinquishes her place to attend law school, thus leaving a convenient spot for Violet to fill. Violet soon proves her tough gal mettle and earns Coyote street cred by breaking up bar fights and saving Cammie from a Tailhook situation (distracting a group of grope-happy sailors by singing Blondie's "One Way or Another" on the bar).

The usual complications impede Violet's inevitable ascent to songwriter superstardom: debilitating stage fright, her late mother's own musical failures, a clinging father and, of course, a barroom packed with salivating men, which makes the Coyote the kind of flashy insta-fun that detours young Manhattanites from their real goals.

Women are on top in Coyote — from the sexual bravado of the bartenders, whose personalities ("the bitch," "the tease") give them the appearance of supervixen superheroes ... to the equal time director David McNally gives to scantily clad male bodies as female ones. For all its sexual energy, Coyote Ugly is also noticeably chaste — there is no nudity and a general cornball innocence about the whole production, as if it really were a story being told from lambchop innocent Violet's point of view. The girls tease and priss but definitely wear the leather pants in the gender wars — way up on the bar, grabbing random men from the crowd to douse with whiskey. Even Violet's songwriting aspirations take the filmic front burner, so that we're never quite sure what it is her slacker Australian boyfriend Kevin (Adam Garcia) aspires to in the big city.

Though its star Perabo — whose acres of teeth and Silly Putty smile suggest a blonde Julia Roberts — is possessed of the kind of pipsqueak voice that could drive a person to distraction, Coyote does have some nice low-key ambiance going for it including Violet's believably grim New York apartment in Chinatown, some cutely combative banter between Perabo and Garcia and some comic relief courtesy of the portly Bunkeresque palooka Goodman revisiting his "Roseanne" role.

There is something oddly appealing in Coyote Ugly's innocent sexiness and simplistic emotions, the kind of film fluff appropriate for teens more often inundated with nihilistic raunch. The film suggests the fantasy of a horny but virginal tenth-grader, at times winning you over with its naive charm, even as other scenes work like an IV drip of rat poison. There is nothing in Coyote Ugly that hasn't been seen in a dozen films already clogging video shelves, but it scores points for tilting the table of sexual politics and resisting the widespread trend toward scatological humor.