Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 8, 2004)
Here it is, folks, the first - and so far only - mainstream, general-release movie to be rated "NC-17". That rating was created in the early 1990s to try to eliminate the stigma attached to the "X". It was felt that filmmakers felt stifled by the limitations of "R" but needed to edit their movies to make them "R"-worthy or else they'd get the dreaded "X" with its connotations of porn and certain financial death at the box office.
As such, the MPAA tried to reclaim their rating system from the porno movies and they made the "NC-17", which was supposed to be the classy, painless way to offer adult-oriented films. That was the intention, but it never quite worked out that way.
The first "NC-17" movie was Henry and June, an art house affair that had almost zero appeal for the general public. Filmmakers still seemed afraid of the "NC-17" and stayed away from it, other than for these kinds of small films that would have just been unrated anyway.
Showgirls had the potential to change that. Here at last was a mainstream film from a well-regarded director with Paul Verhoeven of
Robocop and Basic Instinct fame plus a successful writer via Joe Eszterhaz of Basic Instinct and Jagged Edge) with the backing of a major studio in the form of MGM. How could it fail?
Pretty easily, as it happens. The problems: a) the film was no good; and b) it turns out no one was really all that interested in seeing a movie about the happenings "behind the scenes" at Las Vegas revues. Add to that the ironic stigma that Showgirls was essentially perceived as a glorified porno movie and the film died a very quick death at the box office. Had things gone differently, thousands of Internet geeks would have been spared the ordeal of endless arguments about whether Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut should have been altered because Warner Bros. might have let it go out as "NC-17".
I guess Showgirls was the wrong horse upon which to bet all the
"NC-17" bucks, though the entire affair has given it an infamous immortality that otherwise might have been lost. Had it received an "R", it would have been long forgotten, for it really is a pretty crummy movie.
Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) comes to Las Vegas with the dream to become a showgirl. She quickly gets ripped off, though this allows her to meet and befriend Molly Abrams (Gina Ravera), a costume mistress for a big show. Nomi gets a job as a stripper but still hopes to get into casino revues. Her connection through Molly allows Nomi a bit of an inside connection, and she idolizes star performer Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), at least until the dancer insults her. Nomi also lusts for Cristalís boyfriend, hotel entertainment director Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan).
Nomi meets nightclub bouncer named James Smith (Glenn Plummer) who claims he can help improve her dancing skills. They engage in a rocky relationship. In the meantime, Cristal drags Zack to Nomiís club, primarily in an apparent effort to humiliate the dancer. This works, but Cristal initiates a triangle when she pays Nomi to lap-dance Zack, which piques his interest in her.
Cristal also maintains a perverse fascination with Nomi, so she sends a representative from her show to recruit her for an audition. She thinks she fails, which is what first lands her with James. However, she ultimately lands the gig as part of the chorus.
From there Showgirls follows Nomiís path to stardom. She eventually capitalizes on Cristalís failings, and she also manipulates situations to her own advantage. She becomes cut-throat and plows through everyone in her way as she runs to the top.
Any similarities between Showgirls and All About Eve are purely intentional. Imagine the Bette Davis classic without the snappy dialogue and vivid performances but with a lot more skin and you get Showgirls. Itís almost like a porn knock-off of Eve, honestly; itís only marginally classier than cheap rip-offs with titles like Saving Ryanís Privates.
Actually, Showgirls isn't bad in an unentertaining, unwatchable way. Indeed, it does offer some guiltily campy pleasures, and despite the protestations of many, I think Verhoeven meant it to be that way. His American films have always tended to have an overblown spirit and openly satirize aspects of our culture. It's not quite as obvious in
Showgirls as it was in Robocop or Starship Troopers, but it's definitely there.
The conflict occurs because it also seems clear the Eszterhas wasn't kidding around when he wrote the script. It seems obvious that he was on some sort of hit-writer high and he thought he was concocting some sort of sleazy epic. The result is some insanely laughable dialogue - such as an interchange between up-and-comer Nomi and Cristal about the pleasures of dog food - and the entire movie possesses a bizarre mix of high drama and low comedy. God knows what Eszterhas was thinking, but he really crashed and burned here.
Large portions of Showgirls are quite dull, but we find enough trashy fun to keep us entertained. Berkley is uniformly awful as the mercenary Nomi, but she doesn't stand alone in that category. Quite a few of the other actors are not so hot as well - though no one else is nearly as overly-emotive as she - and Verhoeven's movies often feature poor acting. I might even believe that perhaps some of Berkley's extreme broadness was intentional were there not at least a few other decent performances, notably from Gershon, who seems to have been the only participant to actually get a career boost from this film. Whereas Nomi comes across as a nasty bitch who cannot possibly seem endearing to anyone, Cristal seems to be a clever, charming bitch whose popularity we can understand.
Although not much about Showgirls seems entertaining, and its crassness can be pretty bad, I have to admit the nudity doesn't hurt. Actually, I thought there'd be more than there is. Sure, we see lots of topless scenes, but we get only a little full-frontal. Hey, I thought this was supposed to push the envelope?
Ultimately Showgirls stands as a genuinely bad movie, and whether or not you'll enjoy it depends on your tolerance for campy trash. I won't really try to defend it on the grounds that much of the silliness does seem intentional, but I suppose that'll let the more pretentious folks feel better about watching it.