Coyote Ugly

(David McNally, USA, 2000)


These days, as a result of his famous role on the TV show Roseanne, John Goodman is regularly wheeled into movies to provide a touch of authenticity – a walking piece of grumpy, obese, working class realism.

Unfortunately, when everything else around him is phoney and saccharine, even Goodman looks fake.

Coyote Ugly is a disappointing confection. Violet (Piper Perabo) leaves her widowed, suburban Dad (Goodman) and comes to New York. She finds work at a club where the girls behind the bar hone their skills at spinning drink bottles, insulting customers and grinding to loud rock hits.

In this post-feminist school of hard knocks, sisterhood is everything – even if the boss, Lil (Maria Bello), is unforgiving and her fellow workers are variously daft or bitchy.

Gina Wendkos’ script allots too many goals to its heroine. Contrary to the impression that one might receive from the trailer, Coyote Ugly is not about a girl who wants to dance in a low-class bar, Flashdance (1983) style. Violet, in fact, wants to be a famous songwriter. But then a third challenge pops up: she is afraid to sing in public, so her beau Kevin (Adam Garcia) gives quite some attention to this crippling showbiz phobia.

By the end, it is a little hard to know exactly what to applaud Violet for – gyrating on table tops, blaring out a tune on stage, or writing a song for guest star LeAnn Rimes.

A similar indecisiveness rules the bar scenes. Over and over, the film starts to rev up to maximum energy as the dancers do their raunchy stuff and the crowd goes wild. But none of these spectacles are given enough time to find a satisfying shape; director David McNally, making his debut feature, nervously cuts away just as things are getting good.

While the formulaic parts of the film – such as the rather dreary romance between Violet and Kevin, or the camaraderie between barmaids – often fall flat, its clumsiest and most excessive moments tend to be the most enjoyable. Kevin’s sensitive speech about his unhappy childhood defies belief. A rooftop scene in which Violet instantly converts her lifeless folk tune into a rap groove is equally hilarious.

The biggest problem with the film is that it is dead scared to become a musical. All the opportunities for such a transformation are there: dance scenes, song contests, enchanted rooftops, lovers sharing a tune in the afterglow.

However, just like its rather dated playlist of ’80s and ’90s hits, Coyote Ugly aims for a safe middleground of taste and entertainment – a pity, because it could have been raunchy, vibrant fun.

© Adrian Martin January 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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