Small minds may say that "Showgirls," the first NC-17 film to get a wide studio release, is lacking in other accomplishments, but don't you believe it. Actually, it's hard to know which of this film's several attainments is the most surprising.
First off, this nominally risque story of naked ambition among Las Vegas showgirls has somehow managed to make extensive nudity exquisitely boring. Then it has bested some stiff competition to set new low standards for demeaning treatment of women on film. And, perhaps most boggling of all, it has made it possible for viewers to look longingly back on "Basic Instinct" as the golden age of the director Paul Verhoeven/screenwriter Joe Eszterhas collaboration.
Everything you feared it might be and less, "Showgirls" is a movie made to be exploited, not seen. Both in print and in the TV teaser trailers, this picture manages to appear more involving and provocative than it actually is. No one is expecting "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," but even in the pulp trash genre certain minimal standards must be observed.
Instead, perhaps hypnotized into somnolence by all that nudity, Verhoeven and Eszterhas have neglected to provide the kind of passion and energy this kind of material cannot exist without. Lacking the combustible Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas in leading roles, "Showgirls" descends into incoherent tedium. Though the filmmakers' incessant talk about vision, artistry and honest self-expression lead one to expect a sexually explicit biopic about the Dalai Lama, what is in fact provided is depressing and disappointing as well as dehumanizing.
And though much has been made about how extensively researched "Showgirls" is, its entire dramatic shape is lifted from previous films, with great chunks of everything from Eszterhas' own "Flashdance" to "All About Eve" to the Busby Berkeley-choreographed "Forty-Second Street" periodically crashing down on the proceedings like boulders.
What plot there is revolves around a young woman named Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) who arrives in Las Vegas from parts unknown intent on making her mark as a dancer. Unable to find employment in the city's more rarefied boi ^tes, she catches on in a sleazy spot called Cheetah's Topless Lounge, where extra money can be made via provocative "you can touch them but they can't touch you" lap dancing in the back room.
To the unaided eye, the pouty, hot-tempered Nomi (shrilly played by Berkley) comes off as an irritating, self-absorbed twerp. So it is a double shock to discover that "Showgirls" expects us to identify with this infantile individual as a sensitive seeker after self-esteem and not be surprised when everyone else in the film takes an inexplicable interest in her well-being.
This group begins with Molly Abrams (Gina Ravera), who works as a costumer at the classy Stardust and introduces Nomi to Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), the headliner in the hotel's "Goddess" stage show, who calls everyone "darlin' " and can either be ruthless or accommodating, depending on which page the script is on.
And don't the men show an interest as well. Though director Tony Moss (Alan Rachins doing "Forty-Second Street's" Warner Baxter) is strictly business, more personal attention comes from the Stardust's entertainment director Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan) and James Smith (Glenn Plummer), a dancer inexplicably AWOL from New York's Alvin Ailey troupe, who thinks Nomi's got too much raw talent to be hustling laps.
While there can be no doubt that Nomi lusts after Cristal's job, "Showgirls" is so incoherent from a character point of view that the nature of almost every other relationship in the film is baffling. As to the picture's deeper concerns about the effects of venal Vegas on this young woman's soul, Nomi is such a termagant one wonders if the city is not in more danger than she is.
Given the subject matter, it's inevitable that "Showgirls" indulges heavily in partial and complete female nudity, all of it to negligible erotic effect. In fact none of the film's sexual antics, including a surly lap dance by Nomi, is any kind of improvement over the nudie-cutie antics of skin flick auteurs of decades past like Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger, who must be wondering why no one ever gave them $35-million budgets to work with. And as if treating women as no more than interchangeable bodies wasn't enough "Showgirls" includes a sickening scene of violent rape that will disturb anyone still awake by the time it appears on screen.
Of all the opportunities "Showgirls" missed, the saddest one is the inability to make good use of its NC-17 rating by turning out a genuine piece of erotica or even good hearty trash. Instead Verhoeven and Eszterhas have combined to make a film of thunderous oafishness that gives adult subject matter the kind of bad name it does not need or deserve.
* MPAA rating: NC-17, for nudity and erotic sexuality throughout, and for some graphic language and sexual violence. Times guidelines: an extremely disturbing violent rape scene.
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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
Mario Kassar presentation, Chargeurs/Charles Evans production in association with Carolco Pictures Inc., Joe Eszterhas and Ben Myron, released by United Artists. Director Paul Verhoeven. Producers Alan Marshall, Charles Evans. Executive producer Mario Kassar. Screenplay Joe Eszterhas. Cinematographer Jost Vacano. Editor Mark Goldblatt, Mark Helfrich. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Music David A. Stewart. Production design Allan Camern. Art director William F. O'Brien. Set decorator Richard C. Goddard. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.