A so-so drama about a group of miserable strippers in LA's San Fernando Valley, this film stands out not only for giving you the chance to see several well-known actresses take their tops off, but for being that rare and risky bird: the workshop film. The actresses created their characters themselves, working with director Radford over several weeks of improvisation sessions; thus, the dialogue isn't really written but "developed".
It's an interesting approach to filmmaking, made famous by the likes of John Cassavettes and Mike Leigh, but it requires excellent performers to make up for its inherent lack of plot. Dancing at the Blue Iguana is thus a mixed bag, as its cast is of variable quality. Sandra Oh fares the best, and it's her story thread – as a poet (yes, really) who moonlights as a stripper – that is developed to the fullest extent. It's tough to make that character not come across as a ridiculous cliche, but she pulls it off. (She pulls off her top too, nyuk nyuk.) Daryl Hannah fares less well as a terminally ditsy blonde who dreams of adopting a foster child, despite her career and her drug problems and her filthy apartment. Jennifer Tilly is given comparatively little screen time as a shrill bully who discovers she's pregnant (although she does have the funniest scene in the film when she does a little side business as a dominatrix). The other two featured actresses – Charlotte Ayanna and Sheila Kelley – didn't create very interesting characters, and their tormented strippers' subplots barely register.
There's also something kind of creepy about the way Radford films his cast: although he deserves kudos for allowing the women to play against sexist stereotypes as honestly as they can, his camera never stops leering at them. I've been to a couple of strip clubs. I find them depressing. But Radford (and/or his cinematographer Ericson Core) films the actresses' bodies in such loving closeup that I got a sense that he was getting turned on by these pathetic characters, just because they were willing to bare their breasts and stick their bottoms up in the air. Of course if you think that sounds like a good enough reason to see this movie, then you'll get what you pay for.