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Showgirls

Review by Carrie Gorringe


Directed by Paul Verhoeven.

Starring Elizabeth Berkley,
Kyle MacLaughlin, Gina Gershon,
Gina Ravera, Glenn Plummer,
Alan Rachins.

Screenplay by Joe Eszterhas.

In the 1950 Joseph Mankiewicz classic, All About Eve, Bette Davis advises everyone, "Fasten your seat belts -- it's going to be a bumpy night." Davis didn't know the half of it. Showgirls steals much of its narrative from "Eve" while leaving much of the charm and humor behind, and this isn't the only half-hearted theft this film commits. In other words, you don't need a seat belt for this movie because it runs out of gas pretty quickly.

The first time the audience sees Nomi Malone (Berkley) striding rather purposely onto the highway looking for a ride to Las Vegas, its members are supposed to get the impression that she is a lady with a mission who will succeed at any cost. We've seen this variation at least a hundred times before in American cinema -- the open road, heading to the West, a land of presumably limitless opportunity and a chance to hide a rather shady past. And Nomi just seems like the right type to succeed; from her purposeful walk to the way that she pulls a switchblade upon the driver who picks her up and proceeds to make a pass at her, she is one tough cookie who doesn't crumble. She doesn't know what an M.B.A. is and cannot pronounce "Versace" correctly, but she knows what the top of the heap looks like and just how ruthless one has to be in order to get there. And it's a good thing, too, because everybody wants to use her talents in one way or another, from the powerful (see below) to the powerless, such as James (Plummer), a talentless would-be choreographer who is forced to work as a bouncer at a nightclub.

Fortunately, she is befriended by Molly (Ravera), the costume supervisor for the "Goddess" show at the Stardust hotel. "Goddess," in fact, is what one would politely call a high-class soft-core porn show; it is not unlike the strip show that Nomi performs at the less reputable "Cheetah" club (lap dances extra), except that the admission is much more expensive and the production values tend to delude the well-heeled audience into believing that something more than T and A is at stake. From the minute that Nomi sees Crystal (Gershon), the headliner on stage in this extravaganza, Nomi fixes her sights high (at least by Vegas standards). An inevitable post-performance meeting between the two sets up the pivot around which Showgirls must effectively revolve if it is to work, and it is an old cinematic standby: these two women dislike each other on sight, and a bitter rivalry is formed, the result, the audience must initially assume, of their similarities in goals and personality. Both Nomi and Crystal want the same things -- money and power high on the list, of course -- right down to Zack (MacLaughlin), the Entertainment Director for the Stardust. To complicate matters somewhat, Crystal is alternately attracted to and jealous of Nomi as the two women are put through their personal and professional sexual trysts.

Unfortunately for all concerned, this love triangle angle, with its fillip of quasi-lesbian "spice," can't generate enough heat to make this film intriguing. With Showgirls, Verhoeven and Eszterhas have accomplished the impossible: they have created a version of cinematic sexuality that is neither pornographic nor erotic, but, rather, is insufferably dull. Needless to say, this is quite an accomplishment for this not-so-dynamic duo. It should be remembered that Verhoeven and Eszterhas also gave the world the brouhaha known as Basic Instinct, a film which taught men to be afraid of white silk scarves and ice picks, especially when used in combination; what Fatal Attraction presumably did for marital fidelity, Basic Instinct supposedly had a similar effect upon practitioners of rough sex. The whole mess was, in retrospect, overrated, but it had a cathartic effect upon a movie-going audience spooked silly by the specter of AIDS in the early nineties that was looking for a cheap, no-risk thrill which apparently was no longer available between the sheets, against the wall, on the floor, etc. So, it was no surprise when Verhoeven and Eszterhas, prior to the release of Showgirls, boasted about how this film would remove the stigma attached to an NC-17 rating (the old "X" rating) because it would bring some heretofore elusive sense of "class" to the presumably declasse genre of sexually explicit filmmaking. With the runaway success of Basic Instinct, the two could be forgiven for assuming that lightning could strike twice.

But maybe the motto that best sums up the appeal of this film, or lack thereof, is that you can't fool all of the people all of the time. From all appearances, it would seem that the only "class" that Verhoeven and Eszterhas gave to Showgirls comes in the form of a budget that allows for gold lame g-strings in lieu of basic black. The sets and costumes (what there are of them) are quite stunning, in a cheesy sort of way, but the dancing and sex borrow liberally from badly-executed martial arts and epileptic fits respectively; it looks as if someone borrowed the moves and the sleaze from Bob Fosse while neglecting to pick up Fosse's spirit and talent in the process. Moreover, Eszterhas seems to have forgotten one of the fundamental tenets of writing for a film in which the central character's goals have to drive the narrative forward (that is to say, most genre filmmaking): there must be sufficient expository detail about the main character's life for the audience to connect with him/her. The audience learns nothing about Nomi's sordid and tragic earlier life until the film is nearly over; consequently, there is very little for the audience to understand about the character's motivations. Instead, Eszterhas opts for the tendentious method of character exposition: he foolishly thinks that, if each character surrounding Nomi makes a comment about her unknown past every ten minutes or so during the course of the film, he can create a sense of mystery about her.

However, Eszterhas makes a most serious miscalculation in relying upon the strength of the lead character; there is no mystery about this lady, or, at least, none worth pondering for any length of time. As written by Eszterhas, Nomi is not only one of the most stupid individuals imaginable but selfish, petulant and self-pitying can also be added to that list. When something pleases her, her only comment is, "It doesn't suck." This treatment is meted out in equal measure to both her friends and her enemies, but especially to her friends; she does have some consciousness of a need for restraint in her upwardly-mobile quest, but not much of it. She is contrasted with Molly, the costume supervisor who dreams of being a designer and of getting there by the old-fashioned route of education and hard work, but the violent treatment meted out to Molly near the end of the film suggests just what Eszterhas thinks of that type of ambition; in fact, he has Crystal provide Nomi with the "real" recipe for success: "If someone gets in your way, step on them. If you're the only one left standing, they hire you." As a result, the real mystery in this film isn't one of how Nomi gets to the top , but rather how anyone could find it in his or her heart, providing he or she had one, to give this venal and stupid little twit any breaks at all; she telegraphs her all-consuming ambition so patently (not unlike an overbearing perfume that you can smell before you can see its wearer) that it would be suicide for even the most ruthless character to help her on the way up; as Crystal will have the opportunity to learn, her pupil is a very quick study in matters of ambition. Nomi may be stupid, but she can break a leg when necessary -- in all meanings of the expression.

The vicious and stupid tendencies in the character are not helped by the fact that Berkley believes in conveying frustrated ambition solely by throwing up her arms and walking away in a huff after shouting the usual round of obscenities (augmented by the occasional grabbing of an offender's shirt for what might charitably be called variety's sake). Blank-eyed stares and a delivery of lines which is so flat that it measures exactly 180 degrees, round out her acting "repertoire." In keeping with the spirit of the film, an inflatable doll would have provided more animation for the part. In only one scene does Nomi's character -- and the film in general -- provide even a scintilla of its erotic promise, and that's when Crystal, having plied Nomi with expensive food and drink and having provoked her with insults, then attempts to seduce her under the guise of a dance lesson. Sparks do fly as their mutual attraction becomes evident to both. Then the moment is as quickly broken, and the film never recovers from its loss. Other than eroticism, the scene is also meant to convey the impression that Crystal and Nomi are, apart from socio-economic position, are each other's double -- yet another non-surprise that Eszterhas has in store. This doppelganger effect is displayed to tedious rather than compelling effect. Having Crystal explain over and over again to Nomi that the two of them are the same and are whores into the bargain is less a source of enlightenment than of redundancy. At that point, the question posed to Verhoeven and Eszterhas then becomes, "So, what are you going to do about it?" The answer is painfully apparent.

Nevertheless, it is Gershon's performance as Crystal, the sardonic, coke-snorting, good-ol' gal from El Paso that provides the primary source of whatever is interesting about that scene and this film; she is its only primary source of tinder, threatening at any time to set things alight (more often than not, it isn't her fault that she doesn't succeed). Thanks to Gershon, one can literally see the hatred and resentment that seethes under Crystal's most minimally polite exterior; the cost to her soul of obtaining even this minor success is evident. Crystal calls everybody "Darlin'," but the way in which she says it leaves one with the impression that facing an angry cobra might be a safer option. Gershon breathes life into Eszterhas' deadly dialogue; no doubt, given her experience in straight-to-video releases such as Best of the Best 3, she knows more than a little about dialogue resurrection -- her qualifications are more than Eszterhas' swill deserved. When Crystal tells Nomi that she will be hired if she's the only one left standing, Gershon's presence is so strong that one can see the "corpses" of her past "victims" piled behind her; if there's any justice in Hollywood, Gershon's career should not be an additional victim. To measure how good Gershon is, one need only compare her with some of the other performers in this film. MacLaughlin, as the love interest, provides a certain oily charm to the role of Zack, but the portrayal is just too pallid, as are those of Ravera (although her efforts are valiant) and Plummer. The bright exception in this list is Alan Rachins (late of L.A. Law), in an all-too-brief appearance as Tony, the funny-because-bitchy director of "Goddess." It is obvious that Gershon and Rachins are the only ones in the film not taking themselves, or the film, too seriously; they are, in fact, having an incredibly good time. But they are diminished by too many others who can't, including the other actors, the screenwriter and the director, all of whom want far too much from too little.

There is a moment in Showgirls which provides a most inadvertent sense of serendipity. It occurs when James, the dancer manque, finally manages to stage the dance that he choreographed for Nomi. The scene takes place in the nightclub where he used to work. Naturally, given the failure of his life (he is on the verge of taking a job in a grocery store to support his pregnant wife-to-be), the performance ends in highly vocal abuse. At one point, one member of the on-screen audience, fed up with the half-hearted and incompetent movements exhibited by James and company, sneers, "Get this shit off the stage." Enough said.


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