What do you say about a documentary that concedes the reputation of director Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 Showgirls as “a piece of shit” and still makes a case for the most explicit, expensive NC-17 sexcapade this side of Caligula as “a stealth masterpiece”? For trash-cinema aficionados, Jeffrey McHale’s feature debut doc is a raucous hoot that also generates a grudging appreciation. There must be reasons why the film dubbed “All About Eve in a G-string” rose from the ashes to achieve a commercial afterlife as a cult sensation in revival houses, home video and digital streaming. And McHale is nothing if not determined to dig out those reasons.
You Don’t Nomi is named after Nomi Malone, the perpetually pissed-off dancer/stripper played by Elizabeth Berkley, who’s been trying to live down the role for 25 years. Despite a traumatic childhood, the hitch-hiking Nomi is determined to thumb her way to the self-realization and empowerment she’s been denied, which helps explains why the film strikes a chord with women and queer audiences. Her questionable goals involve getting off the lapdance circuit to make it as a Vegas showgirl and dethrone Sin City queen Cristal Connors, acted by Gina Gershon with a lip-smacking sense of lewd fun. The rivals bond by remembering their early days eating Dog Chow and loving it. As McHale runs deliciously deranged clips, comments are offered from various film critics, scholars and fans — ranging from the late essayist Susan Sontag to drag performer Peaches Christ. It would be too easy to write off You Don’t Nomi as a glorified package of DVD extras. McHale has something far craftier in mind that involves film aesthetics, critical analysis and Verhoeven’s cinematic history.
Showgirls rained down a world of critical pain on Verhoeven, who wasn’t used to it. Though the grossly overpaid screenwriter Joe Esterhaus deserved every brick thrown at him for a script that still defines “hot mess,” Verhoeven was — and is — a master film stylist. Love or hate Showgirls, the movie is skillfully made. McHale excerpts comments from interviews with both creators in which they utter pretentious gibberish about how Showgirls is about “moral values and spiritual choices.” Right. In the words of writer David Schmader, “these were two men who did a lot of cocaine and found themselves drunk with power after making a shitty movie about a lesbian ice-pick killer that was a huge hit.” He’s referring to 1992’s Basic Instinct, starring Sharon Stone as the killer who famously flashed her crotch and Michael Douglas as the cop who brought her in. Is that lurid erotic thriller a better movie than Showgirls or are we simply talking semantics because the latter had better acting, bigger stars and a booming box office?
You Don’t Nomi takes many shots at Hollywood hypocrisy, but scores its most cutting points when it shows instead of tells. Amid all the Showgirls bloviating by the experts, McHale layers in scenes from the early Dutch films that made Verhoeven’s name, such critical darlings as Turkish Delight, Keetje Tippel, Spetters and The Fourth Man. And suddenly we understand, without being told, that sex, violence, misogyny, homophobia, and hard bodies with brows unlined by thought have always been part of the Verhoeven mystique. That includes his Hollywood work before and after Showgirls — 1982’s Robocop, 1990’s Total Recall and 1997’s Starship Troopers. As pertinent moments from these high points are juxtaposed against scenes from the director’s one notorious flop, it’s clear that Showgirls isn’t an anomaly, but an essential piece in the puzzle regarding an auteur with the eye of an artist and the instincts of a pornographer.
Case in point: the controversial Showgirls scene in which Nomi exacts brutal revenge against the man who raped her friend. “It’s cynical to see that as justice triumphant,” notes a female critic. Is it? Jump ahead to Verhoeven’s echo of that scene in 2017’s Elle, in which Isabelle Huppert plays a rape victim who takes her own vengeance. Elle wins a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Huppert; Showgirls gets weighed down with Razzies as the “worst movie of the decade.”
A fairer judgement comes from poet Jeffrey Conway, who puts Verhoeven’s folly in the same camp pantheon as Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest, movies that are “impossibly bad and impossibly thrilling at the same time.” Credit McHale for showing a soft spot for Berkley by including Verhoeven’s confession that the one-note hysteria of her performance was his idea (“I told her to exaggerate every move”). At a Hollywood screening in 2015, Berkley is greeted with rapturous applause as she introduces the movie with a signature Nomi dance move. Sweet.
Verhoeven, of course, is anything but. At one point the filmmaker, now 80, says: “I’m a child — I think it’s funny to provoke.” It’s also infantile, infuriating, artful and enthralling. But in the context this doc provides for the cult classic, it makes you want to see Showgirls again regardless of whether you belong to that cult or not.