Coyote Ugly Review: Subverting the Dominant Paradigm
“Hell No! H20!” That’s the unexpectedly avant garde rallying cry of Maria Bello’s maître d’ in the ambitiously populist and envisionating 2000 film, Coyote Ugly, a film that reminds us of a time not too long ago before effete and obscure auteurs began hiding behind their CGI gimcrackery and dialog-ridden scripts steeped in superhero fantasy. Coyote Ugly reintroduces the idea of cinema as it was originally conceived — as a way to appeal to and enrich every viewer’s eye-born aesthetic instinct — before a concentration on nature, physiognomy, and elitist sophistication forced the medium to explode upon itself. Bello’s character, Lil, may as well have been spraying aqua pura on the fiery remains of a dying art form, breathing one last gasp into the medium before the eraironic of fake populism besotted us with the fitful gags and digital playthings of directors like Christopher Nolan. Indeed, Coyote Ugly was a movie that could bond a disparate populace, fusing our frenzied hormones together with the sophistication and ardor that only the director of Kangaroo Jack could provide.
The Jerry Bruckheimer-produced film is not plagued by the hypocritically confused self-importance of boomer vanity. It was a pure distillation of sexual boldness without any pedestrian trappings. It is blessedly free of grad school exegesis, or any of the rampant fetishism that dominates “high-culture” cinema today. Though the New York intellectuals would disagree, Coyote Ugly expresses our very contemporary concern with procreation. “Every man has a two-year-old inside his pants,” Lil tells her ingénue, Violet Sanford, before her audition with a modern saloon that fortés in leather-clad luscious pin-ups that prance and peacock on canteen bar-tops while flouncing skin to the rhythms of the industrial anthems of the era. Violet, depicted by the lithely pliable Piper Perabo — the film’s Virgin Mary metaphor dealing with her own religious struggle of sorts — moves from her salt-of-the-Earth Jersey family to Manhattan to fulfill her dreams, as Mary had done in fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14.
Violet is joined behind and on top of the bar by supple supporting players, women who are not played by strippers but actresses with emotional affect and an ability to awaken the quivering adolescence throbbing beneath our heteronormative breeches. But these women are more than colleagues filled with estrogen and menstrua; their friendship resembles Mike Leigh’s insight and Renoir’s grace but crossed with sexual freedom and feminist triumph. True art is watching hot-chick Tyra Banks fearlessly bathe her hardened nipples in the cool liquids of an ice pitcher while staring into the grotesque parade of pulsating libidos, as if coming to grips with her own necessary exploitation.
But Coyote Ugly never gives into that bleakness. It, instead, requires viewers to feel those discredited virtues, “hope” and “faith,” and doesn’t resort to obvious, self-congratulatory point-making. It reexamines assumptions of good and evil — morality tale vs. trite entertainment — by confronting the hideous compromises people make with social conventions and their own desperation, in this case Violet’s artistically optimistic decision to engage in bar humping as a means toward a commercial singing career.
Coyote Ugly never panders to the naiveté of those who have not outgrown moral simplifications or who would want to contend with their profound impulse to procreate. The film stirs emotion from our pop culture, industrial experience then connects them to spiritual myth, while rightfully never assuming that its audience wants more than boy-meets-girl dream fulfillment.
In the decade since its release, the smug media has used unsavory means to intimidate moviegoers into holding their same high-rent values; this hegemony is put into effect by pundits with no grace or humility, who assert their difference — their smartness — from the general public. But Coyote Ugly reminds us that our primal instincts — those that the media elite cannot touch — will always win out, especially when accompanied by Def Leppard anthems. Today, critics are so smart-ass about movies that pander to hipness that they worship the form’s hi-tech degradation and crippling banality. Conversely, by bringing experience and existential contemplation together so forcefully, David McNally defies the smug elite and joins the ranks of the most audacious avant-garde filmmakers: He turns the popcorn movie experience into a consideration of our sexual concupiscence, a notion increasingly crippled by the enervated intellectuals who would prioritize thinking over our own instinctual urges. Shame on them.
Armond White is a critic for the New York Press. He is originally from Detroit.
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