Although I am not of a mind that director Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 opus Showgirls is anything but watchable trash, there are many who believe it is a masterpiece—or at least a “masterpiece of shit,” as one writer has described it—and perhaps he and I aren’t that far off in our opinion of the glossy, overacted, and morally confused work. Marking the feature debut of Jeffrey McHale, the documentary/film essay You Don’t Nomi dissects the film to examine its many facets and to contemplate its deeper meanings, casting choices, plot directions and the ultimate purpose that Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas had in mind when creating the box office disaster (the biggest-budget NC-17 film to date) that has grown into a cult classic.
Done in a similar style to many of the recent works of Alexandre O. Philippe (Memory: The Origins of Alien; 78/52, which looks in detail at the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho), You Don’t Nomi tends to revolve around the theories and defenses of Toronto-based film critic Adam Nayman, who wrote the book It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, which argues that the movie is a much smarter and deeper work than it is given credit for. And using ample clips from the movie, as well as archival interviews with most of the major players in front of and behind the camera, Nayman and others trace not only the film’s profile of dancer Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) from the underbelly to the heights of Las Vegas, but it also documents the film’s ascension as a bonafide cult favorite, as it went on to inspire countless midnight showings, a stage musical, and many a think-piece about how good/bad it truly is.
The film doesn’t just look at Showgirls in a bubble; it examines the times in which it was released, when sex and violence were seen as companion themes in so many films, including Verhoeven’s previous film, Basic Instinct. The doc also contemplates the significance of casting Berkley in her first leading role, after achieving a degree of success as the prototype Social Justice Warrior Jessie Spano on the “Saved by the Bell” series. Some even suggest that Nomi is meant to be considered in the context of Jessie—perhaps not as the same person, but an example of a good girl gone bad after being treated wrongly by the world after high school.
You Don’t Nomi is about as deep a dive as you could possibly want on Showgirls, even putting a microscope on the practically competing acting styles of Berkley and co-lead Gina Gershon; and the role of the black characters in the film who only seem to be there to prop Nomi up but not to have lives and backstories of their own. I also liked the way filmmaker McHale and writer Nayman look at Showgirls in the context of other films by Verhoeven, finding common themes—sex and violence—and characters.
My favorite moments are the more recent sequences showing the rise of Showgirls as a cult phenomenon and how many of the people involved in the production view the film today. Although there are no new interviews with the primary cast and crew in the doc, it does spotlight recent interviews and Q&As with the likes of Berkley (who took a long time to feel comfortable talking about this career killer), Kyle MacLachlan (whose career seemed unscathed by being a part of Showgirls), and even Verhoeven, who has taken the stance that the film was also meant to be surreal, over-the-top, even humorous camp—which is most definitely not the way others involved remember it. The film is part masterclass in what not to do when telling the story of a young, struggling, determined woman (perhaps with anger-management issues), as well as a redemptive journey that attempts to acknowledge those who genuinely seem to like Showgirls. There’s room for everyone in this world. Whatever your feelings about the original film, the passion behind You Don’t Nomi is infectious.
The film is now available On Demand and via most digital platforms.
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