The only positive thing there is to say about “Showgirls” is that the sensibility of the film perfectly matches that of its milieu. Impossibly vulgar, tawdry and coarse, this much-touted major studio splash into NC-17 waters is akin to being keelhauled through a cesspool, with sharks swimming alongside. The public’s curiosity has no doubt been lubricated sufficiently to produce some impressive opening numbers, meaning that the hex on the stiff rating could be broken. It’s just too bad the cause couldn’t have been served by a better film.
Word of mouth should douse the flames before long, although prospects in certain key overseas markets, where Verhoeven’s name and the promise of big-budget sexy sleaze mean a lot, look very big.
Yes, the picture is awash in nudity, but crudity is more the operative word. Virtually all the human exchanges in the film are sexualized in some debasing manner, and these are between people who in every other way don’t even like each other. “Sell, sell your bodies,” the show producer shouts at his dancers, and sex-as-commodity is definitely the overriding theme here, for no one more than the filmmakers.
There may be a vague echo of “All About Eve” behind the glitz in this tale of a Las Vegas dancer’s rise to what passes for stardom in the gambling capital. But to even allude to such a classic in the same context as this rubbish is to dignify the pathetic storytelling skills of Joe Eszterhas’ screenplay, with its lack of characterization and narrative tension.
Even the opening scene is unbelievable in this day and age, as Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), tarted up as if she’s already working the Strip, actually hitches a ride and expects not to get hit on while she and what seems like a wannabe
Elvis impersonator head for Vegas. Once there, the young man steals her suitcase, leaving her at the mercy of the streets. But she has the good fortune of being rescued by the only decent, unexploitative person in all of Vegas, Molly (Gina Ravera), who takes her in at her modest trailer-park home.
Through Molly, who’s a costumer, Nomi gets to glimpse the gaudy “Goddess” show at the Stardust and to briefly meet its star, Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon). This world holds Nomi’s dream, but for the moment she’s got to endure working at Cheetahs strip joint, where she slithers up and down poles and, for $ 500, lap-dances Stardust entertainment director Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan) at the invitation of his g.f., Cristal.
Aspiring choreographer James Smith (Glenn Plummer) intermittently tries to strike up a friendship with Nomi, but whenever anyone asks her anything about her past, she throws a fit and stalks off. In fact, Nomi’s explosive tantrums become something of an unintentional running gag, as virtually every scene in the film’s first half seems to end with her becoming furious and running away.
But she does have her bod and some mean moves, so Nomi soon escapes Cheetahs for a spot in the
Stardust dance troupe. Cristal, who gives Nomi plenty of lingering looks, invites her to lunch, where the two dolls hit it off.
After a detailed discussion of Nomi’s breasts, they return to the Stardust for a private pas de deux onstage, but Nomi stomps away from that little encounter, just as she shows what she’s really made of when she refuses a big-bucks latenight date with an admiring Thai businessman.
Nomi reveals her shortcomings when she mispronounces Versace and asks Zack, “What’s an MBA?” but it doesn’t matter to Zack, who takes her back to his mansion for a frolic in the pool. This is the only time in the picture Nomi has sex with anyone, so in one sense, “Showgirls” is a lot more restrained than most of Eszterhas’ and Verhoeven’s previous work.
Incensed by the young woman’s power play of sleeping with her man, Cristal vetoes Nomi’s new gig as her understudy, whereupon Nomi pushes Cristal down some stairs backstage, breaking her hip. One guess who now inherits the leading role in “Goddess.” But that’s OK with Cristal, since she came up the same way herself.
For good measure, there’s a brutal gangbang rape of Molly, something that feels gratuitously added just so Nomi can take revenge in ascene that has all the trappings of an homage to “Basic Instinct.” Ending is a joke, totally unbelievable and unmotivated even in this preposterous context.
Pic wobbles between the risible and the merely unconvincing throughout. For all the time spent backstage , no effort is made to convey a credible or detailed picture of the lives of the (mostly) women who populate this world. When Cristal goes on the disabled list, the hotel management hilariously discusses replacing her with Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul, as if either of them would appear in a show rising virtually nude out of an erupting volcano. It’s also unclear what the star does that’s so special, since she appears to do the same step as the other dancers.
Worse is that, with the exception of Molly and, to a lesser extent, James (the film’s two black characters, whatever one is supposed to make of that), everyone in the picture is a selfish, heartless, unsympathetic user. There is no reason whatever to take an interest in any of these people, who are provided with no human dimensions. Most annoying of all is Nomi, who, as Berkley plays her, is harsh, graceless and quickly tiresome; the character is so hard she’s not attractive or sexy at all.
Gershon has a little fun with her queen-of-the-fleshpot role, and Ravera at least offers a degree of warmth as the one nice person who, of course, ends up as a grim victim.
Verhoeven has directed many hot sequences in his career, but none of them are in this film, which just flaunts sex without eroticizing it. The film, like Vegas, is just about the Big Sell.
Tech contributions are suitably gaudy and ostentatious.