Monday, November 24, 2014

Showgirls / **1/2 (1995)

When Nomi Malone marches right into the early moments of “Showgirls” dressed like a rejected stand-in at a music video shoot, it becomes the first in a long list of our observations that inspire laughter. No, not the kind that is intentional or even self-aware; this is one of countless moments that warrants unexpected chuckles based on an underlying absurdity. That the movie is not even supposed to be a comedy marks it as something of a myopic miscalculation; under the well-known influence of writer Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven, what we observe was, in truth, once considered a genuine character drama in the hands of people dedicated enough to the work to supply it with a sense of production value. Perhaps the notion that it was all supposed to be serious was very well sold as a ploy to all those in front of the camera, but who could possibly imagine anyone behind the scenes finding sincerity in this? Who could believe that Eszterhas’ story, a tone-deaf journey through absurd female sex fantasies, had hope of being passable, much less erotic or stimulating? Here is the portrait of a woman displaced from all sense of grace and modulation, who leaves behind the unknown realities of her past and walks brazenly into the bright lights of Las Vegas with a goal to become just another object in a long line of mediocre topless dancers.

Seeing the movie now, so many years after it came and went in a flurry of legend, is to acknowledge the undeniable power of terrible ideas. It is a long, ambitious and shocking exercise that aims so high – and with such detached logic – that we are driven to watch on in the same manner that eyewitnesses watch on at a train wreck. And when I use the word “long,” I mean it – at a staggering 128 minutes, “Showgirls” isn’t merely just a bad movie, but one that refuses to give up until it has spent great lengths of time to sink itself into the deepest reaches of incompetence. Most bad movies have the foresight to know their subjects can be played out in much briefer intervals; this one never seems to want to leave the screen, as if filling the role of one of those obnoxious party guests who shows up to a big gathering sloshed beyond comprehension and refuses to leave even after being asked to do so.

Nomi, the so-called “hero” of this story, occupies the frame like she’s disinterested in traditional human interaction. She is played here by Elizabeth Berkley, in a role that might have demanded a straightforward portrayal by any traditional actress but instead becomes a launching point of an incredibly zany (if energetic) performance that has all the sexual refinement of a blow up doll. As the movie opens, Nomi is on her way to Vegas with images in her head of a great life as a dancer, and upon arrival is robbed by the man she hitchhiked with. After an explosion in a parking lot that can only be described as a fit of physical convulsions, she stumbles into the presence of a girl named Molly (Gina Ravera), who will befriend her, allow her to live in her trailer, and establish all sorts of connections for her at her place of work: an upscale nightclub in the heart of the city that puts on a nightly show called “Goddess,” which is filled with elaborate theatrics and ample supplies of female nudity.

Unfortunately, Nomi’s uncharacteristic demeanor means that she often misinterprets ambiguous comments as outright attacks, and during the early parts of the film she retains a job at a local strip bar called the Cheetah, which is owned by a sleazy manager named Al (Robert Davi) and headlined by a large-breasted mouthpiece named Henrietta (Lin Tucci, in a role that is almost sad in the way it humiliates her). Why does Nomi bother with the lowest denominator of career choices? It may be the only place that likely puts up with her, I suspect; aside from the fact that she is sarcastic and rebellious (and does not know how to take feedback), she is also gifted with the kinds of breasts that attract big dollars. Or so her peers suggest, but I dunno; I’m not exactly an accurate judge on the arousal aspect of female anatomy. What is painfully obvious right from the start, however, is that Nomi doesn’t dance or interact with any sense of eroticism. She is like a porn star eternally caught in the money shot of her art. This trait is exemplified early on when she gives a lap dance to a prospective love interest played by Kyle MacLachlan, and grinds against him so violently that he winds up getting off while fully clothed (later still, the act is used as a framing device for a sex scene in a pool, where Nomi looks more like she is having violent seizures rather than an orgasm).

Never mind. The primary conflict is this: Nomi wants in on “Goddess,” but is greatly intimidated by its lead star Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), who interlaces her thinly-veiled insults against the aspiring dancer with transparent lesbian come-ons. That she dates the MacLachlan character Zack (who also doubles as the nightclub’s manager) is certainly not coincidental; what is more surprising is how her sexual nature overpowers her own sense of skepticism, and after witnessing the violent lap dance she helps to pull strings in order to get Nomi in on the production (oh, and she also likes her fingernails!). Inevitably this will carry the remainder of the picture through a series of sequences that essentially come off as the most ambitious soft-core pornography of the Hollywood system: Nomi will scoff at Cristal’s sly advances, Cristal will attempt to help her through the experience with a devious grin and raised eyebrows, and the two will eventually come to a head in which one will become the other’s understudy and inspire competitive impulses that are either underhanded or, in some cases, dangerous. Except that in this case, all of those sorts of interactions seem to be merely passages of foreplay for them.

Certainly a movie like this never existed for the sake of its story; no, that thought would give too much credit to its writer, who is clearly motivated here by simple male masturbation fantasies. Unfortunately, Joe Eszterhas has not the slightest clue about what he is doing in his portrayal of women; what he perceives is attractive is actually very mechanical, and his audacity to diversify the momentum of the sexual energy with a series of awkward setups and nonsensical dialogue is indicative of a man who knows just as much about effective storytelling as he does about human arousal. Sadly, few people out in front of the mess are even aware that they are participating in such an ambitious travesty – save for Gina Gershon, who works through her own scenes with such brazen confidence that one suspects she is the only person involved who knew it was all a big sham from the first moment the script fell into her lap.

I only wish I could have seen her face during the early story conferences; what did she think of the overwrought lap dance sequence? What about her interactions with Berkley – did she find her adequate in the Nomi role, or did she too find it hilarious how dreadful she was at both dancing and emoting? How about the deplorable rape sequence that occurs in the third act? Did she find the inclusion of that twist suitable for a movie as silly as this? So many scenes here are so ridiculous (and acted with such calculated hysteria) that to describe them in detail would be robbing viewers of the opportunity to witness them firsthand. My personal favorite: a sequence in which Nomi responds to the advances of an aspiring writer and dancer named James (Glenn Plummer), who winds up taking her back to his apartment to teach her how to dance properly before putting the movies on her. They don’t get around to having sex, alas, because Nomi is menstruating… and if you think that James doesn’t investigate by sticking a finger down her panties, think again!

One cannot necessarily accuse Verhoeven of being the problem here; as a director, his film is at least shot with a certain sense of skill, and the camera is a dedicated observer that doesn’t fly around unnecessarily through the baffling events. No, nearly every note of discourse through this awfulness is the direct result of an idiotic screenplay, and editors that seem ambivalent to the concept of trimming scenes or editing out useless pieces of detail altogether. Often, that results in moments throughout the film that defy purpose or explanation, such as a scene halfway into the picture when Nomi’s former boss of the Cheetah comes to wish her luck in “Goddess” (while admitting that he misses her). The context of the scene might have been ok, if not for the fact that they clearly hated each other early on in the picture (and it is never referenced after). What does it exist for, then? There is no tangible reason. Neither is there an explanation, furthermore, for such random moments like one in which a bunch of circus monkeys invade the dressing room of the showgirls, or another in which Nomi and Cristal bond over stories about how much they loved eating dog food as children. If that is what Eszterhas perceives as a precursor to good sexual chemistry, then let us thank the heavens we will never get to visit his bedroom.

So why bother giving the movie somewhat of a favorable rating, you might ask? Because as shockingly bad as nearly every facet is of this overlong excursion into lunacy is, the movie is almost mesmerizing in the way it refuses to let our eyes wander away from the images, and we watch on with unending fascination as the material descends further and further into the septic tank of sleaze, content to ride those waves while we analyze all its baffling moments to exhausting heights. Sometimes we laugh so hard that it’s almost unfair to dismiss the film as worthless; nearly every moment is grossly miscalculated, but there is ambition here so admiringly stalwart that it all develops its own sense of charm. That may, I suppose, explain why the picture has endured so endearingly with some viewers; because they return again and again to Nomi’s world and ensure some kind of ongoing legacy for it (much in the same way people revisit things like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” I guess), that emphasizes the guilty need in some of us to occasionally dwell in the comforts of cheap laughs and brainless sensations. At least none of the filmmakers can be accused of not even trying (or worse yet, lacking basic human morality). “Showgirls” is everything that it has been accused of – incompetent, misjudged, loony and even rather embarrassing – but it succeeds at retaining our interest until the very last moment of its disastrous existence. And even then, Nomi still walks out of Vegas looking like she is on her way to more music video auditions.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Dance (US); 1995; Rated NC-17 for nudity and erotic sexuality throughout, and for some graphic language and sexual violence; Running Time: 128 Minutes

Elizabeth Berkley: Nomi Malone
Kyle MacLachlan: Zack Carey
Gina Gershon: Cristal Connors
Glenn Plummer: James Smith
Robert Davi: Al Torres
Alan Rachins: Tony Moss
Gina Ravera: Molly Abrams
Lin Tucci: Henrietta

Produced by
Lynn Ehrensperger, Charles Evans, Mario Kassar, Alan Marshall and Ben MyronDirected by Paul Verhoeven; Written by Joe Eszterhas

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