A protracted, mostly enervating look into the inner lives of some San Fernando Valley strippers, “Dancing at the Blue Iguana” is an exercise in improv-derived filmmaking that simply proves once again that there’s no substitute for a good script. Pitched at a grimly naturalistic dramatic level and given little rhythm or momentum, Michael Radford’s first U.S.-set picture has a cast and sexual element that should attract a degree of distrib interest internationally, but is too dour to keep either specialized or mainstream auds interested for long. Cable/vid outlook is brighter.
Film’s genesis reps its most interesting aspect. With only a general idea of a strip-club setting in mind, Radford interviewed more than 150 actors to find the ones he settled upon. Thesps then began a five-month period of workshops, improvisations and rehearsals to develop their characters, which in turn contributed to the creation of the various story strands and overall framework. Many of these were videotaped for further refinement, and improv work continued during the 23-day shoot in 35mm.
The five principal women who work every night at the Blue Iguana are sharply defined characters, even if many of their personality traits seem to come with the territory. There’s Stormy (Sheila Kelley), the tough veteran whose past may be catching up with her; Angel (Daryl Hannah), a dimwitted child-woman who pathetically tries to adopt a child; Jo (Jennifer Tilly), the prima donna of the bunch now forced to deal with an unexpected pregnancy; Jasmine (Sandra Oh), a budding poet whose identity seems least tied to stripping; and Jesse (Charlotte Ayanna), a lovely, needy newcomer who’s overly eager to please.
Presiding over the vaguely depressing establishment is Eddie (Robert Wisdom), an outwardly tough customer with his own inner demons to contend with. Then there are the men who hover mysteriously in the vicinity, among them Sully (Elias Koteas), who has been involved with Stormy; Sacha (Vladimir Mashkov), a Russian hit man with an obscure assignment; and Dennis (Chris Hogan), a poetry clubmeister who urges Jasmine out of her creative shell.
Punctuated throughout by snippets of the women’s stage acts, which are decidedly unerotic in impact despite ample nudity, action is set to a large extent in the dressing room, where the ladies chain-smoke as if it were the 1930s, vent, complain, solicit and give advice. Approach allows the film to get under their skin, so to speak, to a certain extent, particularly with Hannah’s Angel, a woman utterly clueless when not gyrating before the public, and Oh’s Jasmine, whose reluctance to recite her poetry at a club is momentarily touching.
But far too much of the running time is devoted to relatively routine behavioral matters devoid of dramatic urgency or import. “Mystery” elements involving the men have an annoying grafted-on feel, and the realism of the dialogue remains mundane without the verbal sharpening and poetic shaping that a dramatist can provide.
The commitment of the actresses shows in their unquestionable credibility and lack of self-consciousness in these roles, but structure allows for only fragments of the characters’ personalities to be displayed. Tech package is unexceptional, marked by relatively flat lensing and an eclectic mix of more than 30 pop tunes — from Leonard Cohen to the “Run Lola Run” theme — to serve as musical backdrop.