Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1995)

11. Showgirls

With the massive success of “Basic Instinct,” Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas proved that Americans would line up for a movie loaded with graphic sexual content. Galvanized, the two went to work on an even more extreme follow-up. “Showgirls” would pile on the sex and nudity to such a degree, that an NC-17 was the only rating the MPAA could ever conceivably hand out. It would be the first major studio release to go to theaters with the adults-only rating. It would also be the last major studio release with that distinction. “Showgirls” would be a fiasco, flopping at the box office and receiving reviews that could only be described as apocalyptic. The failure contributed to Eszterhas' professional meltdown and totally torpedoed Elizabeth Berkley's career. Yet over the years, the film would acquire a passionate cult following, being reclaimed as a camp masterpiece. Some have even hailed it as a serious satire. So which is it?

A girl calling herself Nomi hitchhikes into Las Vegas. She considers herself a dancer and dreams of becoming a star. After a guy steals her suitcase, she makes her first friend in a parking lot. That friend works as a seamstress at a casino, home of the glamorous “Goddess” dance show, starring Crystal Connors, the queen of the showgirls. While Nomi toils away in a super seedy strip club, she dreams of dancing in “Goddess.” Soon, that dream comes true, when she catches Crystal's eye. Nomi, however, craves more success. She won't stop sleeping with powerful men and hurting other people until she's the star of the show.

“Showgirls” takes place in an excessively trashy world. Everything about the movie is loud. The music, colors, and production values are over-the-top. The characters are in your face. Joe Eszterhas' dialogue is even more ridiculous and self-aggravatingly outrageous than in “Basic Instinct.” And at over two hours long, “Showgirls” is determined to squeeze in as much trashiness as possible. Some people embrace the awful dialogue and ridiculous aesthetic. Personally, I found the dialogue obnoxious. The movie's constant garishness quickly exhausted me, within the first half-hour. And there's still more than an hour left after that.

One of the reason I find “Showgirls” to be irritating is Nomi. In the opening scene, she repays an act of kindness with threats of violence. When she first meets Molly, who becomes her only real friend, she attacks her too. At a pivotal moment, Nomi pushes her professional rival down the stairs, getting the lead role in the stage show. And this is after that rival repeatedly tried to help her. The movie draws attention to her white trash roots – her love of cheeseburgers and potato chips, her obsession with getting her nails done, her inability to pronounce foreign words – which, frankly, I don't know how to interpret. Nomi is single minded, totally unscrupulous, and only cares about herself. She doesn't care who she hurts on her way to the top. Elizabeth Berkley's performance is utterly tone-deaf but you knew that already.

“Showgirls” is, in many odd ways, Paul Verhoeven's attempt at making a musicals. There's no actual singing but there's lots of dancing and songs. Something that's especially unbelievable about the film is how often Nomi's dancing abilities are praised. Pretty much every time she gets on-stage, someone complements on her raw talent. I don't know much about the art of dance but I feel confident in calling Nomi's dance moves awkward, at best. At worst, they look fucking dumb. She gyrates wildly, bends over at weird angles, spasmodically thrashes her hips, and waves her arms around in ridiculous ways. Even when dancing with a friend, a bouncer who attempts to romance her, Nomi maintains this goofball style of dance.

If you think Nomi's dancing skills are laughable, wait until you see the stage shows. The professional showgirls dance in a manner no less convulsive than Nomi, sliding across the stage in ways that look really goofy. Crystal Connors' “Goddess” show features a bizarre volcano set, with vaguely caveman like dancers. There's another set with white pillars, that feature Crystal floating off on wires. Later, there's an even stranger routine that feature leather outfits, motorcycles, and a metal set that spews sparks. I've never been to Vegas but I doubt a hotel would grant a topless dance routine production values that lavish. In general, these scenes look utterly ridiculous.

Then again, maybe thrashing around like a decapitated chicken is considered normal in the world of “Showgirls.” Observe, if you will, the film's various sex scenes. When Nomi is first introduced to Zach, the hotel's production manager, she's paid to give him a lap dance. She dry-humps him with frantic gyrations, twisting her body about in bizarre ways. This is merely a precursor to when Zach and Nomi consummate their relationship. You don't need me to tell you about the improvable positioning in the notorious dolphin pool sex scene. If the effect was to be erotic, it failed. Berkley's wild thrashing in the pool simply causes the viewer to exclaim in bafflement.

“Showgirls'” treatment of all things sexual is farcical for most of its run time. Until Nomi invites Molly to a party, where she meets Andrew Carver, a rock star she lusted after earlier in the film. Andrew takes Molly back to her room. What follows is an absolutely ghastly rape scene. Molly is  assaulted so brutally, her legs are bloody afterwards. She is beaten into unconsciousness. What the fuck does one make of this scene? The intimate, sickening way it's shot recalls a similar moment in “Spetters.” Yet even the sick humor you could possibly see in that moment is absent here. It's just an ugly, brutal sequence. Verhoeven's obsession with rape is becoming increasingly difficult to justify. 

If you give the director and writer the benefit of the doubt, that hideous rape scene might serve the film's themes. Andrew Carver's connection protect him from the law. While Molly is recuperating in the hospital, Zach learns the truth about Nomi. That she has an extensive criminal record, showing a previous life as a literal crack whore. He then brutally rejects her. In this moment, Nomi seems to show remorse for her ruthless actions. And the film's themes start to mirror “Katie Tippel,” stating that a man's world is so brutal that a woman must be equally brutal if she hopes to succeed.

Yet “Showgirls” immediately tosses this interesting point out to become a facile revenge fantasy. Nomi tracks Andrew Carver down and beats him up. That's it. She doesn't kill. She doesn't even cut his dick off. That wouldn't have made up for the ugliness of the rape but at least it would've provided the viewer with some catharsis. Nomi does nothing to stop Carver from abusing somebody else. Nomi then apologizes to Crystal and Molly, both of whom forgive her. It's a whimper of an ending, that does nothing to redeem Nomi or truly avenge her only real friend. Nomi's attack against Carver is shot like an action movie too, confirming that the filmmakers' seemingly believed this to be a satisfying conclusion.

So what of the performances? Most of the cast does not seem to know what sort of movie they were making. Elizabeth Berkley reads her lines in a totally clueless way, responding to everything stimuli with self-righteous annoyance. Kyle MacLachlan was vocal about his disapproval of the movie. His performance is deeply sleazy, playing against his somewhat wholesome image to odd effect. A few of the supporting players, however, are on Verhoeven's trashy wavelength. Gina Gershon, sporting a ridiculous Southern accent, hams it up as Crystal. She vamps effortlessly through her scenes. Robert Davi has a hilarious bit part as the extremely seedy owner of the strip club Nomi works in. Alan Rachins is similarly sleazy as the stage manager who insists Nomi's nipples aren't perky enough. 

In the years since its release, “Showgirls' has become recognized as a cult classic, one of those “so bad, it's good” type of movies. It's fairly obvious to me that “Showgirls” was supposed to be ridiculous. I don't know if all the humor was intentional but the film's excessive, over-the-top atmosphere was obviously on purpose. Other writers have gone even further, in their attempts to reclaim the film. Some see a satire of American values, that Nomi's ruthless ways is indicative of how our remorseless, capitalistic society. Some have even gone so far as to call “Showgirls” sorta feminist, seeing Nomi's status as a totally feckless anti-hero as representative.

All of these elements are clearly inside the film, to varying degrees. To me, this subversiveness doesn't make up for “Showgirls” being so insufferably obnoxious. I hate the characters, especially Nomi. The ridiculous dance routines don't make me laugh. The rape scene goes too far. By piling excess upon excess, Verhoeven just made sure I got tired of the film very quickly. Despite my problems with the picture, “Showgirls'” place in the pantheon of cult movies is secured. Unsurprisingly, there have been multiple DVD releases, quote-alongs, stage adaptations, and even a direct-to-video sequel. And fans are welcomed to them. [Grade: D]

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