Moore's Naked Ambition Shows In `Striptease'

------------ MOVIE REVIEW ------------

XX 1/2 "Striptease," with Demi Moore, Burt Reynolds, Ving Rhames, Armand Assante and Robert Patrick. Directed and written by Andrew Bergman. Aurora, Crossroads, Everett 9, Factoria, Grand Cinemas, Issaquah 9, Metro, Mountlake 9, Newmark, Puyallup 6, Renton Village, SeaTac North, Valley drive-in. "R" - Restricted, due to profanity, nudity, adult humor.

There's a scene in "Striptease" in which the bouncer of the Eager Beaver topless bar (played with abundant straight-faced humor by "Pulp Fiction's" Ving Rhames) is asked if he knew any topless dancers who later became famous.

"Meryl Streep," he responds to his incredulous inquirer. Only back then the highly esteemed actress was known as "Chesty LaFrance." The joke being, of course, that Meryl Streep wouldn't be caught dead working in a strip joint, pre-fame or otherwise.

Demi Moore knows that she is not Meryl Streep. And while Moore may aspire to Streep's level of prestige as an actor, it's safe to say that Streep - and a lot of other women - might be impressed by the savvy approach that Moore has taken to her own skills and the career she has built around them. Regardless of whatever feminist debates it will provoke (regarding issues of self-exploitation, degradation, etc.), "Striptease" makes it clear that Moore knows exactly what she's doing as she goes naked into the world (well, topless at least) with confident conviction.

This movie is likely to attract not only men but women as well, and largely for the same reason. After three children and plenty of disciplined workouts, Moore has a body that many men would die for, and a body that many women would kill for. It's an interesting dynamic for a filmgoing audience, and Moore is well aware of that cross-gender appeal.

As comedies go, Andrew Bergman's slick adaptation of Carl Hiassen's darkly comic crime story is a mixed bag of memorable zingers and dog-tired cliches. Struggling to combine comedy, corruption, murder and drama, the movie never finds its groove, relying too heavily on implausible situations that lead to one of the weakest endings (reportedly rewritten after poorly received test previews) in recent memory. In the same generic neighborhood, "Get Shorty" soared where "Striptease" comparatively stumbles.

Moore plays Erin Grant, an FBI employee in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who loses her job - and custody of her daughter (played by Moore's own sweet-natured 7-year-old daughter, Rumer Willis) - when an unsympathetic judge rules in favor of Erin's estranged husband Darrell (Robert Patrick, the robot cop from "Terminator 2"), a scummy police informant who makes a meager living by stealing and reselling hospital wheelchairs.

The flexible hours and good pay of stripping provide a viable if temporary solution to Erin's dilemma. She quickly becomes a star attraction at the Eager Beaver, where the drunk and degenerate Congressman David Dilbeck (Burt Reynolds) sees her and falls instantly in lust. He's also photographed beating another patron (for getting too touchy-feely with his dream girl), and targeted for blackmail by Erin's most loyal fan, who proposes a plan that could help Erin win her custody battle.

The power play results in a pair of murders, the involvement of a Florida detective (Armand Assante) who investigates on Erin's behalf, and encounters with Dilbeck's dangerous flunkies. Using herself as bait, Erin plays the congressman's weakness for naked women to her advantage.

It's nearly impossible to imagine Moore's character ever being married to such an unredeemable louse, and much of "Striptease" has to be accepted at face value because it's similarly unconvincing. What survives is the creepy realization that our legal system is prone to such dismal cases of improper child custody, giving ample justification to Erin Grant's decisions. And when Erin discovers that her daughter had watched her stripping from behind a backstage curtain, Moore (with her ever-reliable tear ducts) hits just the right note of tenderness and pain, and the mother-daughter casting adds a special resonance to the scene.

Reynolds provides the comedic highlights, but he's so convincingly depraved that his sly and unflattering performance borders on the grotesque. When he orders his beleaguered assistant to pilfer a sample of Erin's laundry-filter lint (seizing any opportunity to sniff her "essence"), "Striptease" hits a high note of comedic perversity.

Bergman, who made "The Freshman" and "Honeymoon in Vegas," provides quotable one-liners for everyone (especially Rhames), and a bevy of strippers lend colorful albeit stereotypically ditzy support. And although it drags for 105 lugubrious minutes, "Striptease" is not the embarrassment that "Showgirls" was - not by a long shot. Guaranteed to be a bestselling video, this is Demi's game all the way.