Monday, June 08, 2020

You Don’t Nomi: Defending Showgirls

Only a certain kind of film can sustain a documentary of its own. Usually, they are good films that either support strange interpretations (as with Room 237 on The Shining) or were the result of notoriously dramatic production shoot (like The Exorcist). Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls stands in a classless class by itself. Initially reviled, it has developed a weird cult following, with Midnight screenings in the tradition of Rocky Horror Picture Show. Several of its most vocal champions explain why the 1995 bomb was better (or at least more interesting) than people thought in Jeffrey McHale’s You Don’t Nomi, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

There is probably more nudity and sex in Nomi than maybe any other documentary ever reviewed here, but that makes perfect sense if you know anything about Showgirls. It was conceived as the deliberately NC-17 follow-up from director Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Esterhas, who scored a big hit with the risqué thriller Basic Instinct. It was Hollywood going full frontal and then some. The problem is the dialogue and characterization were even more outrageous, but in the wrong kind of way that invites use of the “c” word: “camp.”

Although none of the cast or crew appear in sit-down interviews to justify themselves, McHale’s experts clearly sympathize with lead actress Elizabeth Berkley. They clearly establish it was Verhoeven who pushed and prodded her to go bigger, broader, and crazier in her portrayal of Nomi Malone—and then basically left her exposed to the withering critical reception. They even make compelling connections between her striving teen character on Saved by the Bell and her often inappropriately manic performance as Malone—which April Kidwell explicitly alludes to (and satirizes) as the star of the Off-Broadway musical adaptation.

To give credit where it is due, critics Adam Nyman and David Schmader provide some interesting break-downs and close readings of Showgirls scenes. They are mostly persuasive arguing the film is the carefully-crafted work of an auteurist filmmaker. Something just went very wrong along the way—or rather many things.

Essentially, the film tries to be coy arguing Showgirls is both a campy midnight movie and an unheralded masterwork, but you cannot be half Nomi Malone. By trying to have it both ways, the film never fully makes it case for either. Instead, we are left thinking the film is still the same train wreck it always was, but it seems to mean a lot to a number of rather witty people. That is not exactly a fresh new appreciation, but it is something. More amusing than convincing, You Don’t Know is a good way to watch the highlights of Showgirls without feeling unclean, when it releases tomorrow (6/9) on VOD platforms.