One of the major talking points of the buzz surrounding Boogie Nights upon release was that Paul Thomas Anderson had pulled Burt Reynolds from his career doldrums and shown the world that, yes, Burt was still alive. When you actually look at the arc of Burt’s career, though, it looks a little more like Anderson fucked it forever. Sure, Reynolds was no longer the A-list star he had once been, but few 60-year-olds are. He’d been racking up credits in critically-acclaimed indies (Citizen Ruth), television shows that have yet to enter the pop-cultural subconscious (Evening Shade) and critically-panned, though mainstream Hollywood films (Striptease, Bean). Compare this stagnating-though-decent output with everything that came after it: when the highest profile roles you can get are a supporting role in a remake of your own movie and playing Boss Hogg in a highly-inessential Dukes of Hazzard movie, it looks more like life-support than a resurrection.
It’s in this period that one predictably finds the most inexplicable work of Burt’s career. From last week’s incomprehensible Not Another Not Another Movie to the Uwe Boll juggernaut In the Name of the King, Burt’s post-1997 career offers some real gems but a curious absence of real Burt movies, ones where he plays swaggering macho men who are equal parts Casanova and rapscallion. As its Wikipedia entry helpfully points out, however, Cloud 9 happens to be ‘the last comedy in which Reynolds reprised and updated his role as the charming rascal made legendary in films like The Longest Yard and Smokey and the Bandit.’ Those who thought that Burt has been reduced to the wheezing, sputtering King of In the Name of the King can finally rejoice! Also important to mention that, for all intents and purposes, Cloud 9 is a movie about strippers playing beach volleyball. With Burt Reynolds in it.
Burt plays Billy Cole, a layabout con artist type who lives within spitting distance of Hollywood superstars (like the never-seen Streisand and Brolin and the of-course-they-showed-up Tom Arnold and Gary Busey), allowing him to mooch off their swimming pools and phone lines and earns a meager living delivering trees for Paul Rodriguez, who wants so hard to avoid the stereotype of the Mexican gardener that he affects a ridiculous Asian accents at all time. Billy has a gambling problem and a headful of terrible ideas; his latest idea is to hire some stripper stereotypes and train them (alongside his adoptive son DL Hughley and brain-dead surfer roommate) to play stripper volleyball and turn this into a money-making venture. Predictably, the strippers fit neatly in their ascribed stripper stereotypes: Russian mail order bride (Katheryn Winnick of When Nietzsche Wept fame, once again saddled with an impossible accent), Compton hoochie mama (Kenya Moore), cornpone Britney Spears clone (Marnette Patterson) and, of course, the lowrider-driving Latina spitfire (Patricia de Leon).
Surprisingly, Cloud 9 actually feels like a real movie that would perhaps come out in theaters. Sure, that movie would probably be something like the Tommy Lee Jones cheerleader movie Man of the House and it probably wouldn’t have made much money, but it’s a surprising bid for legitimacy for a movie about strippers starring Burt Reynolds. This becomes increasingly obvious as the movie progresses and becomes the most squeaky-clean stripper movie this side of Milk Money. T&A comedies should have T&A, but this is a movie where strippers take their tops off off-screen, a BOOOOIIIING sound effect plays and Burt Reynolds goes cross-eyed.
Billy’s shitty idea turns out to be a great one since people actually really enjoy seeing women in skimpy clothes jumping around. He makes quite a bit of money leasing out the strippers for bachelor parties (which begs the question why no one was doing that beforehand, but, you know, Burt Reynolds stripper volleyball movie) and finally enters them into legitimate competition, proving to the world that strippers are not automatically good volleyball players just because they look good in a swimsuit. Nonetheless, Billy gets an offer from a tequila company to take the girls on a tour of nightclubs that quickly goes sour when Tony Danza spots Billy taking over Anthony Hopkins’ mansion to have a party (because it’s totally plausible that Tony Danza lives next door to Anthony Hopkins and not next door to DL Hughley).
There’s something quaintly 70’s about Cloud 9 but it operates on a much different level than the one our man Burt was operating in at the time. Cloud 9 exists in the nebulous universe of exploitation sports movies like Squeeze Play and The Unholy Rollers, good-time sex comedies that most likely ushered the BOOOOIIIIING sound effect into the public sphere. Yet even those movies, as dumb as they are, have an innocence that’s mostly absent from this movie. In that particular cultural climate, the films had an air of openness and freedom that’s not really present in Cloud 9. There’s a ‘villain’ character played by actual professional beach volleyball player Gabrielle Reece who shows up periodically to rail on Billy’s team and call it a disgrace to the sport only to be soundly put in her place by whatever male character seem to be around at the time. Where those spoke even tangentially of women’s lib, Cloud 9’s boldest claim is to have Reynolds loudly state the difference between strippers and hookers (one’s strippers, the other’s hookers).
Bailed out of jail by head stripper Julie (Angie Everhart), Billy wants to continue the shenanigans despite the girls’ insistence that they want to become real volleyball players. He mistakenly books the girls into a mud-wrestling / volleyball party that sucks so much it’s treated with the gravitas of a fucking Paul Haggis movie, complete with slow-motion crying and piano score. Burt realises that you can’t treat women like objects and when they say something sucks, you should probably listen to them. He gives them the inspirational sports-movie speech and molds them into something worth being PROUD of. And then more shit happens befitting each and every sports movie ever made.
Now, I know what you’re saying. First I’m complaining the movie’s too reserved and not exploitative enough, then I complain that the movie is exploiting its female characters, then I complain that it’s too mawkish. Here’s the thing: the movie is all of the things I accuse it of being and all of the things I want it to be. It ping-pongs between tones and emotions with stunning regularity that possibly culminates at the point where Everhart narrowly avoids getting raped by two scumbags when Reynolds kicks one of them in the nads. I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again: you’ve got to pick a point of view and stick to it. Babes can’t only be babes when you need them to be, and things can’t just be sad when you decide they should. You can’t have the announcers go ‘nothing wrong with a good catfight’ and have the camera look all of your female cast up and down and claim it’s empowering. Then again, maybe I’m the stick in the mud for expecting nuance from a Burt Reynolds volleyball movie.
The man behind Cloud 9 is Harry Basil, a hacky 80’s prop-motherfucking-comedian who got his start in filmmaking working on Rodney Dangerfield’s last few films. Unsurprisingly, the film relies on quasi-vaudevillian jokes and Breakfast at Tiffany’s level of racial stereotyping. There’s an incredibly embarrassing sequence where, the success of his business having gone to his head, Billy takes over Anthony Hopkins’ mansion and hires a Mexican in a Chinese labourer’s outfit and trains him as a houseboy and rechristens him Chin Cho. On paper, it sounds like a Dangerfield bit and it’s quite possible that Dangerfield’s humility might have sold what was otherwise at least 40 years past the point of expiration. Unfortunately, like much of this movie, whatever may have made it work is dead and buried.
So, why does it exist?
Cloud 9 exists for exactly the same reasons that the aforementioned 70’s and 80’s T&A comedies exist: to make a quick buck off some pretty girls and some dumb jokes. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that Cloud 9 doesn’t have the conviction and go-for-broke spirit that made those movies’ charm. It coasts lazily on old jokes (just for the record there’s a scene in the credits where a blind man gets whacked with a volleyball, oh ho ho) and Baywatch-esque technique, throwing in a little sentimentality in case someone’s looking for it. It’s worse in many way that the wave of self-aware nu-exploitation currently in vogue in Hollywood; at least those guys have an appreciation of the material.
Plus Burt is only nominally a charming scoundrel in this one. He’s mostly old.