Joe “Woman Trouble” Eszterhas reteams with ace stylist Paul Verhoeven, who should know better, to create this bumbling epic of a skin flick. The bulk of the movie is pretty dopey, albeit kind of entertaining. But the World According to Eszterhas, as revealed in an unbearably hostile, stridently righteous final reel, is so smelly and distasteful that Showgirls is, finally, truly and thoroughly repellent.

The last time screenwriter Eszterhas worked with director Verhoeven, the two of them came up with Basic Instinct, an effective if nonsensical vehicle for Michael Douglas’s sex-paranoid White Guy and Sharon Stone’s supercool, omnisexual psycho bitch. The mark of an Eszterhas script seems to be that nothing in the first half of the movie really syncs up with anything in the second half of the movie — that’s how he concocts them surprise endings, and why the conclusions of his Jagged Edge, Basic Instinct, and Sliver scripts are so unsatisfying, even in the context of our low expectations. (In Basic Instinct, is Stone the killer? Well, it depends on exactly when we fade to black.)

Showgirls eschews cheap murder mystery in favor of cheap soap opera, and the results are about what you’d expect. It’s the story of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), a presumably wholesome girl from middle America who hitchhikes to Las Vegas. “I’m a dancer,” she whines, and indeed she finds work, first at a sleazy strip joint called the Cheetah Club, and later at an honest-to-goodness hotel floor show called Goddess (like this is something to aspire to). Her rival is Vegas superstar Cristal Conners (Gina Gershon as the titular Goddess), a corrupting influence. Her best friend is Molly Abrams (Gina Ravera), who takes an inexplicable liking to Nomi despite her bad manners. Her love interests are James Smith (the underutilized Glenn Plummer), who inexplicably believes Nomi has raw talent, and Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan), an executive with the Goddess production who is also Conners’ lover. What comes out of all this is an earnestly produced potboiler version of A Chorus Line, with dry humping.

That’s actually the best reason to see Showgirls — the scene where Cristal pays $100 to take Nomi into a back room and have her grind crotches with Agent Cooper, er, I mean Zack, will no doubt be writ large in the annals of camp cinema, and it is something of a spectacle. But for the rest of the movie, even the horniest viewer may feel a little like Alex in A Clockwork Orange — if you’re strapped down with your eyes peeled open and forced to pay attention to all 132 minutes of Showgirls, you may find yourself clinically desensitized to cinematic displays of breasts and pubic hair. (Fear not for the penis, which is conspicuously absent from this bold sexual extravaganza.) If it’s naked girls you want, I recommend you grab some direct-to-video soft porn and view it with pride — Showgirls is the kind of film that makes Zalman King (of Red Shoe Diaries fame) look like a real humanitarian.

Usually, a high-profile Eszterhas script sucks in some fairly talented performers who can help mitigate the mediocrity somewhat, but is it possible that a warning bell went off in Hollywood before Showgirls even started shooting? Berkley’s previous status as a teen icon in the TV series Saved by the Bell ups the voyeuristic ante, but her idea of acting is all sniffs and petulance. It’s hard to root for an unlikeable character with such tawdry ambitions, and even harder to take any pleasure in the routine display of her body — supposedly one of the film’s main attractions. Berkley may have killed her career, but everyone else is just collecting a paycheck. MacLachlan is a welcome presence, if only because his character is the only one with a twinkle in his eyes that suggests he may be above all these machinations. And of all the characters, only Ravera and Plummer (who appeared in this flop as well as Strange Days) play the kind of human folks you might one day care to have a beer with.

Given her apparent lack of real talent, brains or conviction, we’re hardly surprised when Nomi crosses over to The Dark Side, enticed by Cristal’s comfortable smugness. But Eszterhas’ idea for Nomi’s comeuppance — which actually involves her best friend — is indefensibly ugly in its brutality and gratuitous detail. No matter how much of a hoot you might expect Showgirls to be, take this as a warning: it’s ultimately depressing, and most definitely not a date movie. We can only wonder what sort of lesson we’re supposed to have gleaned when, at film’s end, Nomi sets out to hitch her way into that other cesspool of the American West, Hollywood. (Maybe Nomi will score a role in a Verhoeven movie by sniffing petulantly, “I’m an actress!”)

The final insult? Eszterhas was surely paid millions for this script, which was supposed to open up the theatrical market for mature, responsible, NC-17 Hollywood productions by proving that audiences would flock to see an intelligent, sexy picture. Not only is this movie really dumb, but it’s barely sexy, and not even close to explicit. The adults-only rating is well earned, but I’d argue it has more to do with wanton hatefulness and misguided moralizing than sex and nudity, which are usually fine by me. More than any self-consciously “sexy” production I’ve seen yet, Showgirls puts the rot in erotic. D

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