"Coyote Ugly" is what happens when uber-Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer (responsible for this year's "Gone in 60 Seconds") tries to do a 'chick flick'-- an overblown MTV-friendly production that pushes the (teenage male) audience's buttons with a tried-and-true template. And while I went into the theater with the expectation of seeing "Showgirls" for the new millennium, "Coyote Ugly" certainly wasn't as hopelessly bad as I thought it would be, especially in the parts of the film that took place outside the titular bar. On the other hand, with its cloying by-the-numbers romance and emphasis on caricatures vs. characters, "Coyote Ugly" is certainly no "Shakespeare in Love".
This is your typical 'small-town girl ventures to the big city to follow her dreams' story. In "Coyote Ugly", the heroine is Violet (Piper Perabo, who debuted in "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle"), a shrinking violet from South Amboy, New Jersey who dreams of becoming a songwriter. Despite the objections of her father (John Goodman of "What Planet Are You From?"), Violet heads off to the bright lights of New York to try and make it in the music business. Unfortunately, this naive girl quickly realizes that there are thousands of other wannabe-musicians just like her waiting in the wings. The only way for her to get her music heard is to perform them herself in front of a live audience-- and therein lies the problem. You see, Violet suffers from a severe case of stage fright that makes it almost impossible for her to perform in public. Interestingly enough, it is the same affliction that prevented her late mother from achieving stardom.
With her musical career going nowhere and the money running out, Piper decides to get a job to pay the rent. Fortunately for her, while eating breakfast in a greasy diner, she happens to overhear three women talking about a potential job opening in a local bar called 'Coyote Ugly' and decides to apply. Violet is hired on the spot by Lil (Maria Bello of "Payback"), the owner of the Coyote Ugly, and she finds herself thrust into the rowdiest country-western bar in Manhattan, where the female bartenders, known as 'coyotes', alternate between serving drinks, dancing on the bar, flirting with the predominantly-male clientele, fighting off the occasional drunk, and setting the counter on fire.
At first, Violet is overwhelmed by the demands of her job, but she quickly learns the ropes and becomes a pro at looking good while slinging drinks. In addition, she also finds the work 'therapeutic', with the need to 'perform' while bartending helps her overcome her stage fright. With her life finally coming together, which includes an Australian boyfriend (Adam Garcia), it looks as though Violet is going to make it in the Big Apple. It's just too bad that there are some unexpected consequences of being a 'coyote' that Violet didn't anticipate.
For all intents and purposes, "Coyote Ugly" is the latest iteration of the old Hollywood musical. Though the characters don't spontaneously burst into song at the drop of a hat (though a contrived situation will do the trick), the music-and-choreography-drenched story follows the familiar Broadway paradigm of the no-name talent crawling their way up to fame, fortune, and romance ("Fame" comes to mind). In addition to the 'bump-and-grind' sessions that the 'coyotes' so enthusiastically participate in while at work, first-time director David McNally populates the film's soundtrack with songs plundered from the late Eighties and early Nineties, while Leanne Rhimes provides Violet's singing voice and four songs to the soundtrack (and dances on the bar in one point, which is probably a career milestone).
It's also quite obvious what demographic "Coyote Ugly" has its sights on, with a cast that includes the likes of model Tyra Banks, Bridget Moynahan, and Izabella Miko that will certainly provide "Maxim" plenty of content for many months to come. In a style that has become the calling card of the Jerry Bruckheimer movie, the scenes in the bar are flashy, sharply edited, and over-the-top, infusing bartending with the grace of martial arts, and blending jiggy with jiggle. It doesn't matter that the bar can't possibly be making any money with all the time that the 'coyotes' spend on top of the bar-- after all, it is sizzle that is being sold here, and form is more important than function.
That said, "Coyote Ugly" is not entirely a lost cause. When the action shifts out of the bar, the film actually becomes tolerable as a low-octane but sentimental romance, and restores some semblance of intelligence. Though there is hardly anything new in the romance aspects of Gina Wendkos' script, it is still able to conjure up a few soulful moments that will help you forget about the idiotic nonsense that takes place in the bar. Had more emphasis been placed on fine-tuning these quieter moments, while cutting down on the gratuitous T&A, "Coyote Ugly" could have actually been a half-decent film.
As the film's heroine, Perabo certainly shows remarkable improvement from her less-than-impressive debut in "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle". Though the material is cliché-ridden and is fairly predictable, Perabo exudes a certain sense of earnestness and self-assurance in her performance. She also manages to be quite affecting in a number of places, including her first day at work in the bar and in her scenes with Goodman. It would be interesting to see what this young actress can do with better material as her career develops in the years to come. As for the rest of the cast, Goodman acquits himself nicely as Violet's father, while Garcia is likable as Violet's love interest. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast, who were probably hired mainly on looks rather than acting ability.
"Coyote Ugly" is not quite "Showgirls" of the new millennium, but it gets pretty close. Audiences into light-hearted fare will probably find the film's romance somewhat satisfying, which is helped by a surprisingly decent Piper Perabo. However, more serious moviegoers are probably better off heeding their gag reflex.