Abel Ferrara has a ball with “Go Go Tales,” a puckish and perpetually lively night out at a New York strip club that’s faring no better than its sweaty, stressed-out impresario. Ferrara is in a wonderfully loose and comedic mood after the complex spiritual dramatics of “Mary,” expanding his fascination with big American dreams and corrosive addictions while filling the screen with a wild panoply of characters. Given some star power and ample, undulating flesh on view, fest and market value are upward after Cannes midnight non-competish platform, though helmer’s usual problems with Stateside theatrical play will continue.
Most definitely not a “King of New York,” the energetically glad-handing Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe), host and manager of Ray Ruby’s Paradise, is feeling the pressure from all sides on a particular Thursday night. Prospects look bad for getting a packed house, since the tourists aren’t showing up like they used to; but Ray, ever the optimist, is counting on drawing the right numbers in the $18 million lottery being announced during the evening, especially since he’s bought a truckload’s worth of tickets with the aid of his loyal accountant, Jay (Roy Dotrice).
No one’s more aware than Ray that he’s short of cash, but he tries as best as he can to ignore everyone in the club who’s hounding him for money. Backstage, his ensemble of pole dancers, including Dolly (Shanyn Leigh) and the inconveniently pregnant Adrian (Bianca Balti), expected to have been paid yesterday, while the bullheaded and hilariously profane landlady, Lillian (Sylvia Miles), demands four months’ back rent and threatens to sell the space as a future site for a Bed Bath & Beyond outlet. Later on, Ray’s prime backer, his cash-flush hairdresser brother Johnie (Matthew Modine), arrives with the news that he’s “pulling the plug.”
If Ray doesn’t win the lotto, he’s screwed, but — in true Ferrara fashion, where characters often go from bad to much worse — even when he does win (in one of Dafoe’s several explosive scenes), he’s still screwed. Neither he nor Jay can find the winning ticket among the stacks and stacks of tickets they’ve bought and squirreled away for safe keeping.
Much less literally than in “Mary” (in which Modine played a film director whom Ferrara etched in unflattering autobiographical detail), the metaphor of filmmaking as a crazy capitalist gamble — with the clear implication that capitalism itself is an arena of mad self-destruction — comes through in “Go Go Tales” with spirited effervescence. Throwing all caution to the wind and encouraging his cast to improvise a large percentage of the dialogue, Ferrara has made a film of considerable risk and bolstered by a supreme confidence that all will turn out alright in the end, much like Ray himself.
Unlike the film that “Go Go Tales” most touchingly references — John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” — a more hopeful end for Ray is ironically proposed, until a smashing closing shot that once again brings the entrepreneur’s fantasies crashing back to terra firma, and focuses in on Dafoe’s drooping, suddenly frowning visage even as he holds a share of the $18 million check.
Surrounding Ray is a grand parade of characters whom the actors bring furiously to life. Bob Hoskins as club maitre d’ of the Baron has a grand time, improvising up a storm and enjoying every moment of it. Modine continues to get a chance from Ferrara (as he did in “Mary” and “The Blackout”) to play as bad and nasty as the material allows, as does Ferrara regular Asia Argento, summoning forth a stripper with a perverse stage act involving her Rottweiler. Miles lets loose in a fashion unseen since her ’70s heydays, releasing a comic verbal torrent that steals more than one scene. Dotrice provides plenty of tension and amusement in the club’s dim backstage offices, and bits from Joe Cortese, Riccardo Scamarcio and Pras Michel complete an impressively vast group study of folks operating in this fascinating environment.
Club setting, with its modest seating area and stage, hallways, dressing rooms and offices, is brilliantly captured by Ferrara’s constantly roving camera, its eye like an animal’s looking in all directions at once. Lenser Fabio Cianchetti finds numerous means to enliven what has long been a cliched movie locale, and never shies away from observing the sensuous moves of the club’s dozens of female bodies. Ferrara and editor Fabio Nunziata meet the challenge of keeping a film entirely contained in and just around the club constantly dynamic.
Cinecitta sets and a Rome street location convincingly sub for Gotham, and a closing credit finale with Miles singing is worth sitting through.