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Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2003

A deeper kind of strip



Dancing at the Blue Iguana

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Michael Radford
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: English
Opens Jan. 25

Daryl Hannah dancing topless in a seedy strip-club is the come-on of "Dancing at the Blue Iguana," and it's a pretty good one. At age 40, Hannah's got that look of youthful beauty on the cusp of fading that's perfect for playing a veteran stripper. It's a bold move for an actress with a Hollywood rep to be so exposed, literally and emotionally, for such a long take.

News photo
Daryl Hannah in Michael Radford's "Dancing at the Blue Iguana"

But to think that cheap thrills are all that's on offer would be a mistake: "Dancing at the Blue Iguana" is an impeccably acted drama that tries, and mostly succeeds, to convey the reality of working in this most misunderstood profession. And, like the milieu it covers, "Dancing" is as beautiful as it is sad, simultaneously glamorous and blase, sexy and melancholic.

Director Michael Radford, who hasn't been heard from since his 1994 hit "Il Postino," uses five different lead actresses to convey the broad range of experiences encountered in the world of pole-dancing, and -- just as important -- how that experience relates to the "real world."

Daryl Hannah plays Angel, the top dancer at the Blue Iguana, and she exudes a sweet, unfeigned sexuality that's irresistible as she sways suggestively on the stage. The same sort of immersion in the moment that makes her a great dancer also makes her a bit of a space cadet. This naivete gets her into trouble; her desperate attempts to adopt a child are in vain, since she has no idea what kind of impression she makes on people who work daylight hours. Her interview at the adoption agency is hilarious, as Angel tries to show what a good mom she'd be: "I have a very open mind. . . . I don't look down on Michael Jackson for changing the color of his skin."

Jessie (Charlotte Ayana) is equally vulnerable, a barely legal teen who shamelessly flirts with every guy she encounters. Her need for attention to validate her self-worth obviously has roots, and it hurts to see them revealed. She's the type of girl who could inspire a dozen self-help books. More in control is Jo (Jennifer Tilly), a dominatrix for whom stripping is just a game. She'll never know the hurt that Jessie endures, but her front of claws-bared aggression means she'll never be close to anyone either, not even the other dancers.

Somewhat in between these extremes is Jasmine (Canadian actress Sandra Oh, in a performance that would, in an ideal world, earn her an Oscar). She's comfortable with herself and her work, strong yet not closed off to the possibility of love, and even another life. Yet when she gets involved with a writer she meets at a poetry reading, she finds that her job creates a web of mind games.

Stormy (Sheilla Kelley) is a dancer whose moods live up to her name. When Jasmine comes into work on a romantic high, Stormy is determined to make her as miserable as she is. So, she says with cutting cynicism, he's a guy you've known for three days, you're going to move to San Francisco and support him by stripping while he writes poetry? Sure, that sounds like it will work, she sneers.

The club's owners, Bobby and Eddie (W. Earl Brown and Robert Wisdom), are similarly cold realists. When Jasmine begs for a day off, Eddie barks at her, "You ain't got no f***ing life! This is your life!" Whether that's true or not is the question this film explores, but as Angel and Jasmine find out, it's truer than they expected.

"Dancing" grew out of an improvisational workshop, where all the actresses involved developed their characters gradually and the story flowed from them. This explains two things: the overall excellence and depth of the performances; and the slightly sloppy, rambling course of the plot. But in an age of McScripts, you can excuse a few loose ends in a film that dares to be different.

The attempt to capture the reality of complicated characters in an off-the-cuff, lived-in sort of way definitely recalls the work of John Cassavettes, though it's doubtful Cassavettes would have included the Russian hit-man who falls for Angel, or a line like "I want to kiss the poet in you." But despite a few hackneyed scenes, "Dancing" remains a rough gem, full of sharply accurate humor and heart-piercing moments that speak from experience.

Try the scene where Jasmine lolls around Angel's pad, sharing a bong-hit with her flighty friend and listening to her dreams of adoption. Jasmine takes in the room's risque decor, her eyes narrow and she asks, "Your kid's gonna sleep on a heart-shaped bed?" Then there's a great moment where Eddie's checking his answering machine; after a message from buxom star dancer Nico (Kristin Bauer), there's just the sound of a woman sobbing, for a long, long time. He scowls and frets, more concerned than he could have imagined.

But it's the film's finale, as it just kind of winds down into a bleary-eyed dawn, that makes "Dancing at the Blue Iguana" unmissable. Jasmine and the aloof Nico, alone in the dressing room with nowhere to go, share a smoke and some tentative sympathy. It's shot in one long take, the camera watching, breathless, as Jasmine reads Nico one of her poems -- a surprisingly good poem -- and slowly loses it. Cinema doesn't get more intimate than this.

Radford isn't afraid to get intimate with the actresses onstage, either. While their pole-dances would earn them a flurry of tips in any real nightclub, they are as erotic as they are revealing of the women's characters, from Jo's "Let's rock!" bravado to Jessie's slow swoon to a Marianne Faithful tune. Just for once, in this age of downer artcore films like "Baise-moi" and "Lies," it's nice to see a film that's comfortable being sexy and serious.



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