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Moviegoers Like ‘The Full Monty’ For Inspiring Theme

Men, are you ready to go the full monty? Are you ready to hit the boards, take it off, take it all off, and strut your stuff - flab, moles, rashes and all - in front of a packed house of friends, neighbors and complete strangers? Ready to drop your pants and dance bare weeks after a troupe of Chippendale Adonises left town? Or, forced to choose, would you rather have your ear bitten off by Mike Tyson?

I see a lot of hands up for the Tyson alternative, and in that “not me” response lies the key to the success of the British comedy “The Full Monty.” This small, $3.5 million film about a group of unemployed steelworkers who turn strippers to earn a few quid, has become the most unexpected date movie of the season.

Despite its cast of unknowns and its thick accent, “The Full Monty” has been playing to enthusiastic audiences since mid-August. Word of mouth miraculously preceded it into the hinterlands, and the picture leaped into the top five on the box office chart.

So, what’s up? A friend of mine saw “The Full Monty” last week and said the audience was so wired at the end it began an impromptu party, dancing in the aisles to the music over the end credits. Is there an inexplicable plague of happy feet in the country?

The answer is much simpler. Moviegoers have always been uplifted by stories about people facing their dilemmas with head-on risk and succeeding. We often go to movies for vicarious experiences that transport us - if only for the evening - out of our own ruts, and dance often has been the medium. The golden era of the movie musical, from Fred and Ginger to MGM, emerged from the Great Depression, the bleakest period in American history.

Audiences of the day didn’t leave theaters planning to sing and dance their way to new romance, new jobs and new prosperity. They just surrendered to fantasies and let the spirit move them. We have become too reality-based for such flights of fancy in the last few decades, but we still favor the underdog, and when those stories are told well and involve music, we see a phenomenon like “The Full Monty.”

The appeal of “The Full Monty” is in its ragtag, equal-opportunity cast of characters. The dancing steelworkers in the film include a skinny man, a fat man, a black man, a middle-age man and two latent homosexuals who out themselves in the process. What they have in common is their empty wallets and a willingness - however reluctant - to put on a strip show for the locals. And unlike the Chippendale dancers, who preserve some modesty behind their jock strings, they intend to go the full monty.

The movie cheats the phrase a little. Film audiences don’t get the full monty; the climactic moment of the crew’s big number is shot from behind, giving us six full moons. But the point is made that these ordinary guys, determined to get out of their doldrums and off the dole, have the guts to go the distance.