If Tony Manero can make it in New York City in “Saturday Night Fever,” then so can Violet Sanford in “Coyote Ugly,” the latest and most calculated re-do on the formulaic fantasy of an innocent conquering Gotham. Though billed and aggressively marketed to stoke young male interest in the sexy dancin’ and stompin’ waitresses at the wild pick-up bar of the movie’s title, this is one Jerry Bruckheimer project keyed to a young woman’s story. As cannily mixed as a Long Island Iced Tea, pic’s elements offering something for both guys and gals will prove an irresistible draw for date crowds, most likely all the way to Labor Day.
Although scripter Gina Wendkos used to write tough, raw plays and performance pieces, her widescreen tale is an unfettered embrace of Hollywood dream-making in which wet-behind-the-ears Violet (Piper Perabo) succeeds against all odds in her goal of being a songwriter — and falls in love in the bargain.
Catch is that her mode of survival until her big break is mixing drinks and performing for the garrulous, whooping patrons of bar Coyote Ugly, where the staff must hop on the bar and do bumps and grinds and the Texas Two-Step.
Although Violet’s hometown is not geographically far from New York, her native land of South Amboy, N.J. is made to seem like it might as well be Nome, Alaska. Quitting her job as a pizza parlor waitress, she’s urged by her concerned dad Bill (John Goodman) to stay home.
Violet dotes on him, but still leaves, accompanied to her semi-derelict Manhattan walk-up by lifelong friend Gloria (Melanie Lynskey), who’s oh-so-proud that somebody from South Amboy “got out.” Violet wastes no time in setting up her electric piano on her building’s roof and knocking on record label doors.
Rejects by snotty receptionists afford pic a funny skewering of showbiz’s power-tripping peons, including an overworked William Morris operator.
It also affords several early views, as confidently handled by tyro helmer David McNally, of Perabo’s Violet looking like a deer caught in headlights. Seeming from the start to be a bit too hip to be the full-on innocent of her character, Perabo is so lovingly and constantly framed by McNally’s camera that if viewers don’t like her, then pic will be like water torture.
Actress, though, soon shares screen with engaging Aussie thesp Adam Garcia, who plays a burger flipper named Kevin mistaken by Violet as a club manager. Meeting cute is pushed to nth degree here.
Instead of filing a police report after finding her digs ransacked by thieves, Violet consoles herself with a piece of pie at a cafe where it so happens the sexy “Coyotes” of Coyote Ugly (Izabella Miko, Bridget Moynahan and Tyra Banks) have just gotten off work.
Tempted by cash they’re flashing around and overhearing that Banks’ Zoe is quitting, Violet pitches herself to owner Lil (Maria Bello), who gives unsuspecting heroine an “audition” in the ultra-rowdy bar.
Set pieces in Coyote Ugly are staged with a loose energy that captures the boozy, sexy heat of the place, fortunately paced without the kind of hyperactive cutting typical of Bruckheimer productions such as those helmed by Michael Bay, who happens to make a cameo as a newspaper photog snapping away at the Coyotes. Dubbed “Jersey Nun” by Lil, Violet flubs her audition but is given another chance.
Pattern of story is firmly and obviously set in place, as it rather mechanically tracks Violet’s and Kevin’s growing love alongside Violet’s stumbling efforts to get her foot in the music door. Title in retrospect is fairly misleading, as Lil’s place is mere backdrop for central up-by-bootstraps tale. The bar’s exhibitionist style does compel Violet to break out of her shell as a performer, but plot conveniently ignores this development later on when Wendkos’ script throws as many obstacles in Violet’s way as a Hollywood fantasy can allow.
Pic’s major song element is supported by several penned by Diane Warren, whose work is a bit funkier than usual, but they’re obviously dubbed by voice other than Perabo’s — namely, country star LeAnn Rimes, who ultimately makes an appearance herself. Result is rather artificial, in keeping with pic’s pre-fab quality.
Perabo exhibits more energy and naturalness here than in her earlier summer starring role in “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” and though she generates fine chemistry with Garcia, thesp has a long way to go to hold a major pic on her own.
Garcia is the real find here, delivering an easy, breezy performance that will guarantee him some heart-throb status. Goodman is made to corral his marvelous taste for comic excess, giving his good-natured slob of a dad the mild treatment.
Tech credits are thoroughly pro, including good atmospherics by lenser Amir Mokri and hootchie-koochie steps by choreographer Travis Payne.