WFTB Score: 1/20
The plot: Force of nature Nomi Malone whirls into Las Vegas with dreams of starring in the Stardust’s topless revue. With help from her selfless landlady Molly, she works her way up from the bottom to rival the show’s star Cristal Connors, bagging her boyfriend in the process. To make it to the top, however, Nomi must compromise herself; and there’s a heavy price to pay for her vaulting ambition.
In this judgemental, internet-powered, meme-driven world in which we’re living, the phrase ‘Worst. Film. Ever.’ is bandied about far too liberally, applied to movies that are merely cheap or naïve. For a film to be truly bad, it should go beyond mere incompetence and fail on every conceivable level. You’ll have to read on to see what this has to do with Paul Verhoeven’s film…
Leggy young wannabe dancer Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) arrives in Las Vegas with a head full of dreams and a suitcase which rapidly goes missing, leaving her mightily annoyed and dependent on the sympathy of seamstress Molly (Gina Ravera), who takes her in. A little while later, she’s working at the Cheetah strip club under the eyes of grubby owner Al (Robert Davi) and coarse cabaret turn Mama (Lin Tucci); she also grabs the attention of talented choreographer James (Glenn Plummer). But Nomi has her heart set on bigger things, namely the topless ‘Goddess’ show at the Stardust where Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) rules supreme along with her partner, Stardust’s entertainment director Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan). Nomi not only gets a part in the show, she also earns the admiration of Cristal and, independently, Zack. But is the fame worth it if you have to step (read: push) over others to achieve it? Meanwhile, Molly learns the painful truth about the maxim ’never meet your heroes’, forcing Nomi to reach back into her shadowy past to exact revenge.
Verhoeven is an accomplished director who has frequently shown that his unsqueamish, European sensibility works in Hollywood (Total Recall, Starship Troopers). He can do sexy too, as he proved with writer Joe Eszterhas in Basic Instinct. For this reason, when a film is as flat and unsexy as Showgirls, you start to look for excuses: is he satirising the ‘glamour’ of the topless show, of Vegas as a whole? Is he simply saying ‘Here it is – if you’re horrified, it’s not my fault?‘ Unfortunately, nothing about Showgirls (except its blatant awfulness) suggests that it’s a joke; or if it is, the audience isn’t in on it. Chief villain is Eszterhas, who provides a lumpy, vulgar plot and a dismal, foul-mouthed script to accompany an endless parade of toned boobs. No doubt Joe would tell you that women telling anti-women jokes, kids backstage in nudie shows and the dangers of monkey faeces are all culled from real life, but if he’d taken a step back he might have realised they don’t make for a decent movie.
Showgirls amply proves another maxim, that sometimes less is more, and not just in terms of the remorseless nudity. Almost nothing about the film works. The story – a variation on the well-trodden A Star is Born/All About Eve path – never crawls out of the straight-to-video mire, even though the lavish sets and costumes tell you that budget wasn’t an issue. The ‘Goddess’ show is rather dull, particularly the third time around, while the S&M-themed industrial revue that serves as variety is one of the most dismal, depressing sequences ever committed to celluloid.
Another big problem is that our heroine is totally hateful: nasty, trashy, ungrateful and more than willing to bite the hand that feeds her. Worse, she’s boring: once she makes it to the top, Eszterhas realises that there’s nothing else to do with her, so he tacks on a repellent Lady Vengeance coda in order to give Nomi a ‘positive’ end. Throughout, the only mystery behind the film is ‘Who is Nomi and where has she come from?’ But whereas a film such as The Notorious Bettie Page at least tried to explain the motives behind the protagonist’s actions, Showgirls has no such emotional or psychological insight. In fact, it has no emotion at all: there is merely the physical, whether it’s Nomi’s violent interactions with others or the consistently awful choreography.
I sincerely doubt that anyone would have made Nomi a winning, rounded character; but Elizabeth Berkley doesn’t help herself. It’s not that the big-haired former star of Saved by the Bell is wooden; in fact, she’s the exact opposite, which is worse. Berkley never overcomes the fact that her hyper-aggressive reaction to just about everything makes Nomi deeply dislikeable. And – I have to mention it – her infamous sex scene with Kyle MacLachlan is every bit as bad as its legend, grotesquely framed as it is by neon palm trees and water-spouting dolphins. I’m not entirely sure what she’s simulating in that swimming pool, but it looks more like the desperate flailings of a landed cod than the throes of sexual ecstasy.
Also, without being personal (or objectifying) about it, Berkley is in fine physical shape, but her prominent upper teeth make her an unlikely replacement for Gina Gershon, who possesses a Sophia Loren-type beauty (and who smouldered bisexually to much better effect in Bound). Though Cristal is one-dimensional in her deliberate antagonism, Gershon’s is the closest we get to an acting performance worthy of the name; McLachlan oozes his way through the film, while Plummer‘s James is instantly forgettable, a sordid little man with a crummy dance show and unconvincing pimp’s attitude. And I wish I could forget Al, who becomes a surrogate parent (once he stops demanding blow jobs) along with the dazzlingly unedifying ‘Mama‘, she of the drop-top dress and hooting, er, hooters. Ravera is fine as Good Samaritan Molly, the film’s only vaguely sympathetic character; her brutalisation at the hands of slick musician Andrew Carver (William Shockley) is probably Eszterhas and Verhoeven‘s biggest – though far from only – miscalculation.
Still, if you give yourself up to Showgirls and relax into the fact that it‘s utter, utter tripe, there are a couple of reasons to stick with it; you get to hear the phrase ‘brown rice and vegetables’ ad nauseam; you get to see someone feeling a dancer’s knee and making the immortal pronouncement ‘It’s her knee!’; and if you make it all the way to the ‘Isn’t this where we came in?‘ ending, you’ll hear the brilliant closing line: ‘Where’s my f***ing suitcase, a**hole?’
These so-bad-it-could-be-genius qualities mean that I don’t hate Showgirls like I hate some films; for while it’s innately sexist, horrendously written and acted little better, the little heart it has is misguided rather than malicious. Nevertheless, despite technical competence that should place it above stinkers like Caligula (and famously inept productions such as Plan 9 from Outer Space) the mere premise of the film is bad enough for me to rank it below films that I really hate. Yes, though it breaks my heart to say it – let alone move its score up – Showgirls is a worse movie than Heartbreakers. Worst. Film. Ever? I’ll let you know once I’ve seen them all.