Based on a Rolling Stone cover story by Aaron Latham, "Perfect" is a trashy movie about women jumping up and down in leotards, but it's also more (and less) than that, a look at the wages of the free press. Despite a number of fine performances, a few good hoots and more daunting bodies, it's far from perfect. It touts the First Amendment like a corny romance from the '40s -- stars and stripes in spandex.
Rolling Stone writer Adam Lawrence (John Travolta), a thinly veiled Aaron Latham figure, wants air fare to L.A. so he can interview McKenzie (Kenneth Welsh), a thinly veiled John DeLorean figure, but his editor Mark Roth (Jann Wenner), a thinly veiled Jann Wenner figure, won't spring for it -- the interview is too iffy. So Lawrence pitches another L.A. article: how health clubs have become the singles bars of the '80s. He finds his story in Jessie (Jamie Lee Curtis), a former Olympic-class swimmer turned aerobics instructor at the Sports Connection. She's probably a thinly veiled version of someone, but to tell you the truth, I'm not hellbent on finding out.
There's a catch -- Jessie has been "burned" by a reporter before. What's worse, Lawrence, who considers his work a process of "seduction," literally seduces his subject. You can hardly blame Lawrence for flouting reporter's ethics -- Curtis, with her dazzling smile, flinging her stallion's limbs to the thumping aerobics beat, has never looked better, and cinematographer Gordon Willis lights her chiseled features with a loving softness. She's a goddess sprung full-grown from the forehead of the God of Sexual Frankness.
The problem is that Curtis projects so much common sense, it's hard to believe Jessie would fall for Lawrence's baloney about how aerobics is the heir to Emerson and the Great Awakening, his arcane theories about popular culture. What's even harder to believe is that the screen writers, Latham and director James Bridges would fall for it themselves. It seems we're supposed to take it as a mere gambit of seduction (hit 'em with your PhD), but then Jessie herself, the film's spokesman, is invoking Lawrence's theories. "What's wrong with wanting to be perfect?" she bellows, and soon enough, Lawrence is writing a story, not about singles bars, but about Emerson and the Great Awakening and blah blah blah.
His first draft, though, was quite different, an "expose'" of the pathetic lives of Sally (Marilu Henner), a buxom lass who met her husband, a male stripper, at the Sports Connection, and her pal Linda (Laraine Newman), known to the club's sensitive men as "the most used piece of equipment in the gym." Henner is fine for the first time as a giggly, acquisitive ditz; and Newman, with her morbid promiscuity, plays with an emotional nakedness that leaves you agog. When Lawrence smarmily buddies up to these women, then dissects them in print, he's just telling the truth (as all good journalists do), but he's tainted by the enterprise.
"Perfect" is about the toll such "seductions" take on a journalist. What the movie misses is the way these encounters work both ways -- usually, the subject is up to a little "seduction" of his own, equally two-faced. In "Perfect's" morality, taking advantage of little people like Linda and Sally is okay, because the press keeps the big guys (like the movie's McKenzie) honest; it's a testimonial that might have been made with Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart, a refreshingly balanced view in this press-bashing decade. But Rolling Stone, a pop music fanzine for adolescents, seems a slender reed to support such a weighty hypothesis. Rolling Stone keeping the big guys honest? Like who, Rick James?
Speaking of slender reeds, Travolta, with his lip-heavy, underslung jaw hanging like a fleshy festoon beneath his beautiful blank eyes, hardly bespeaks a Man of Journalism. Travolta's essentially a good-natured hunk, but here he's asked to play both a jerk and a bulwark of the First Amendment, and he can't manage either. The plot is built brick-by-brick, but what's usually a strength becomes a fault -- given the blueprint, the movie never surprises you. Except for one scene where he and Curtis giggle over his aerobically induced aches and pains, there's no room here for Travolta's strong suit -- his easy spontaneity.
Wenner isn't much of an actor, but his brazen vanity lights up "Perfect" -- in his lust for celebrity, he doesn't seem to realize how compromising the portrait of both him and his magazine is. He's got a steamrolling, P.T. Barnum quality. The movie offers delightfully arch glimpses of What It Means to Be Wenner, as he punches calls into the speaker phone, or joins Lauren Hutton and Diane von Furstenberg in whipping up ice cream cooled with liquid nitrogen. Wenner is no toe dancer, and Bridges makes the most of it, shooting him in profile as his belly billows out like a spinnaker in a gale.
"Perfect" has something for everyone (serious issues, pretty girls, pretty men, sly humor, bawdy humor), and ends up pleasing no one; everything about this movie undercuts everything else. There's intelligence behind the script, and behind the photography, too -- Willis sprinkles the movie with stunning, MTV-style compositions, and daubs it with lustrous pastels. Then why the puerile profanity, the extended aerobic bump-and-grind between Curtis and Travolta, the male-stripper scene in Chippendale's? It's one thing to talk about the exploitations of journalism, but exploiting the audience while you do it is something else again.