Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 29, 2020)
Back in fall 1995, Showgirls became the first wide release, big-budget “NC-17” rated movie. Despite the presence of successful filmmakers Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas – both coming off a big hit via 1992’s Basic Instinct - and a ton of hype, Showgirls flopped with critics and audiences.
2019’s You Don’t Nomi offers a critical look at the movie, as it takes on a variety of perspectives. We get some history of Showgirls as well as different viewpoints and thoughts about its legacy.
As expected, much of the content comes from interviews, and we get circa 2020 comments from fan/expert David Schmader, critics Adam Nayman, Haley Mlotek, Susan Wloszcyna and Barbara Shilgasser-Parker, film professor Jeffrey Sconce, filmmaker Peaches Christ, poet Jeffrey Conway, and stage actor April Kidwell. We also get archival remarks from screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, director Paul Verhoeven, and actors Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon.
When I went into Nomi, I mostly expected the documentary would attempt to “redeem” the much-maligned Showgirls and convince us it exists as a horribly misunderstood classic. To some degree, the program follows that path, and that becomes the strongest theme, but it also throws in more than a few criticisms.
On the surface, that sounds like a good approach, but Nomi never gets into any kind of consistent groove. It seems like Nomi wants to appear “fair” so it gives lip service to a variety of opinions, even though I believe its heart resides with the “misunderstood classic” side.
We certainly get a lot more opinions in that vein, as we get many thoughts about its alleged various charms. While Nomi doesn’t overwhelm us with this side, it dominates and we get a lot of attempts to convince us that the movie offers something more than ill-conceived junk that its detractors just don’t understand.
Of course, Verhoeven and company have tried to accelerate that belief as well, even as Showgirls found itself falling into the “camp classic” realm. It seems like the film’s creators want to have it both ways: they want to bask in the movie’s afterlife as a piece of over the top cheese while they also claim they intentionally created over the top cheese.
Given Verhoeven’s background, I can buy some of that, as he usually gave us gleefully in-your-face satirical views. However, the “we meant to make a bad movie” idea doesn’t match with the publicity circa 1995.
Schamder offers arguably the most revealing aspects of Nomi when he discusses a book called Portrait of a Film that came out alongside the movie in 1995. As related by Schamder, this text offers no hints of intentional camp and leaves the impression all involved believed they were making a strong, resonant drama.
When long after the fact claims contradict historical data, I almost always go with the latter. Artists frequently alter their views of their work based on public reception, so rather than continue to insist that Showgirls came to life as a serious tale, Verhoeven and company go with the flow and push the camp argument.
As I mentioned, Verhoeven’s background certainly leaves the door open that he intended some of the movie to come across as satire/parody, but I never swallowed that the movie was “intentionally bad”. Nomi’s attempts to convince us otherwise don’t sway me.
Besides the less than convincing stabs at redemption, my biggest problem with Nomi stems from its lack of focus. We don’t find the topics to come under discussion in a logical manner, and the documentary’s purpose can seem unclear.
Does Nomi want to provide a serious critical assessment of Showgirls? Does it want to become a post-mortem on What Went Wrong? Does it want to get into the movie’s camp afterlife? Does it want to show the film’s positive impact?
All of the above – and that would be fine if Nomi approached the subjects in a more coherent manner. Instead, it changes themes abruptly and lacks flow.
This makes it a bit of a mess at times, as the different themes don’t come together as succinctly as they could. We get bits and pieces of different arguments strewn about the film in such as way that they lose impact because the participants don’t get enough concentrated breathing room.
At the heart, I think Showgirls simply isn’t a movie that demands the amount of introspection on display here. When I saw it in 1995, I thought it was a silly film without much value, and despite all attempts to indicate otherwise, that remains true for me. Nomi comes with scattered interesting thoughts but it doesn’t come together in a solid package.