Coyote Ugly (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Uh-oh, this doesn't look promising. Oh, wait a minute, the movie hasn't even started yet.

As absurd as it might sound, there's a strange synergy between very bad movies and very good ones. That's because films on either extreme of the quality scale have the ability to burrow deep into the subconscious, with unpredictable and occasionally remarkable results. Great works of art can cause euphoria, touch a deep emotional chord, or, in rare cases, affect fundamental changes in a person's outlook on life. Conversely, viewing unwatchable tripe can be damaging, possibly resulting in psychotic episodes, an appreciation of '70s fashion, or leaping to the defense of Pauly Shore. There's something almost profound about enduring a horrifically inept piece of cinema, and Coyote Ugly, living up to every letter in its name, offers the opportunity for such an experience.

My God - it's Showgirls without nudity!

For actress Piper Perabo, this is supposed to be a coming-out film (although she has one previous summer film to her credit, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, in which she played FBI agent Karen Sympathy). Like Sharon Stone and Elizabeth Berkeley before her, Perabo is attempting to use slick, ham-handed, high-profile melodrama to propel her career into the fast lane. The approach worked for Stone, in large part because she can act. It didn't for Berkeley, because she can't. Based on her work here, Perabo has suffered a blowout. There is no evidence of any talent - her performance is a collection of blank looks and batted eyelashes. She's a smile on legs - with dental work like that, her orthodontist should be proud. But teeth are all she shows - no crotch shot (like Stone) or erect nipples (like Berkeley). Not that the PG-13 rating could have supported either.

A wet tee-shirt contest in a PG-13 movie?? Who came up with that brilliant idea?

For hyper-successful producer Jerry Bruckheimer (the force behind 2000's Gone In 60 Seconds and about a dozen major hits over the last 20 years), Coyote Ugly represents a new low - a creative pit so deep that he has never seen its like. However, that's what happens when a testosterone magician attempts a crowd-pleasing drama with a female protagonist. Coyote Ugly is loud, gaudy, underacted, and completely without a soul. By comparison, Flashdance (Coyote Ugly's closest relative on the producer's resume) is a marvel of subtlety and character development. Of course, Bruckheimer can't take all the credit for Coyote Ugly. A sizable share belongs to director David McNally (making his first, and hopefully last, film). And I can't leave out screenwriter Gina Wendkos.

30 minutes in, a friend leans over and asks, "Do you really have to stay for this whole thing?"

There is a plot, although it's less of a structured narrative than it is a series of motion picture cliches bundled together. The storyline can be summed up in a few sixth-grade sentences. A 21-year old New Jersey girl named Violet (Perabo) goes to New York City to become a famous songwriter. Needing money, she becomes a bartender at one of Manhattan's trendiest night spots, Coyote Ugly. Behind the bar alongside fellow Coyotes Zoe (Tyra Banks), Cammie (Izabella Miko), and Rachel (Bridget Moynahan), and owner Lil (Maria Bello), she develops a reputation. With her confidence bolstered by the encouragement of her new boyfriend, Kevin (Adam Garcia), she gains the courage to pursue her dream of "sitting in the dark and hearing someone sing my songs."

Survival tips for viewing Coyote Ugly:
1. Do not see it theatrically
2. When viewing it on video, have the remote controller in hand and watch with a group of rowdy friends. Alcohol or any other mind-altering substance is recommended, but not necessary.

The best parts of Coyote Ugly (if the word "best" can be used in this context) are the sequences in the bar, which have the glitzy, overproduced look of amateurish MTV music videos. When the action moves outside of Coyote Ugly's four walls, the energy level downshifts so fast that a viewer may experience extreme disorientation. Coyote Ugly might have been enjoyable in a tawdry sort of way if we weren't forced to endure too many of these protracted dramatic sequences. The dialogue is stunningly bad - it's as if Wendkos made sure that every spoken line was either a cliché, a howler, or both (quite an impressive feat, actually). And Violet's big, breakthrough song sounds like the kind of recycled dance pop that permeates the airwaves at Top 40 stations.

There are some sights you don't want to live long enough to see. John Goodman dropping trousers while dancing on a bar is one of those.

From a creative standpoint, although Coyote Ugly comes dangerously close to the depths of the 2000 list currently occupied by Battlefield Earth, it is eminently more watchable. In the first place, this movie offers a steady diet of visual diversions. Instead of watching John Travolta walk on stilts and sneer through layers of makeup, we are presented with a bunch of good looking girls strutting their stuff. Plus, Coyote Ugly clocks in at twenty merciful minutes shorter, which is definitely a point in its favor. Finally, a case could be made that this movie crosses the line into the "so bad it's fun" arena. (That distinction is a matter of personal taste - I would have to be paid a large sum of money to sit through this a second time.) I can't imagine anyone making the same argument for Battlefield Earth.

During a somber and important scene, as I listen to the dialogue, I feel an inappropriate burst of laughter welling up from deep within. I stop trying to stifle it when I realize that about half the people in the audience are chuckling.

When movies are this bad, it's almost hard not to recommend them. There's a sense of perverse, masochistic enjoyment associated with sitting through something on the level of Coyote Ugly. That's why the likes of Plan Nine From Outer Space and Showgirls have amassed devoted cult followings. In the end, however, Coyote Ugly is a reminder of how awful things can be in a movie theater when the filmmakers miscalculate this badly. At least the print was in focus. That has to be worth a half-star. Throw in another half for the eye candy. Perfect fodder for connoisseurs of bad movies, although not a timeless classic.

As the end credits begin to roll, I make a beeline for the exit, feeling strangely dissociated from my surroundings. "Shellshocked" is the word.

Coyote Ugly (United States, 2000)

Director: David McNally
Cast: Piper Perabo, Adam Garcia, Maria Bello, John Goodman, Tyra Banks, Melanie Lynskey, Adam Alexi-Malle, Izabella Miko, Bridget Moynahan
Screenplay: Gina Wendkos
Cinematography: Amir Mokri
Music: Trevor Horn
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2000-08-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1