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ON FILM: Predictably unexpected, wrong, brilliant

By Philip Martin

This article was published July 9, 2010 at 4:13 a.m.

— Not many people liked Showgirls - the first, and to date only, big-budget, major-studio release to carry an NC-17 rating - when it was released 15 years ago, and most of those who did like it probably enjoyed it for camp reasons. It received mostly terrible reviews (though Roger Ebert wrote that it was “not ... quite unredeemably bad,” he added that it was a “waste of a perfectly good NC-17 rating”).(Myra Breckenridge, also a big-budget, major-studio production, was released in 1970 with an X rating, the predecessor to NC-17, just in case you’re picking nits.)

These days, while Showgirls has a cult following and has done very well on home video - a 15th anniversary edition has just been released, for the first time, on Blu-ray - it’s widely considered an awful movie, among the worst major studio releases of all time. It loaded up on Razzie Awards in 1996, winning seven of the 13 for which it was nominated. (A record at the time; it was tied by Battlefield Earth in 2001 and surpassed by the Lindsay Lohan “thriller” I Know Who Killed Me, which won eight awards in 2008.)

I didn’t review Showgirls for this newspaper - it fact, it was only some years later that I tried to watch the movie. (When I did watch some of it, I found it tedious and depressing, although I can understand why some people think it’s hilarious.)

The reason I didn’t review the film for the Democrat-Gazette is because my friend Tony Moser, intrigued by the prerelease hype, wanted to write about it. And because I, put off by the prerelease hype, really didn’t care to write about the movie.

I had worked with him off and on since I arrived in Arkansas (in a way he was responsible for my coming here, since I succeeded him as an editor at Spectrum in 1989), and I knew Tony (who died in 2000) had an alert, interested mind and subscribed to no particular cultural orthodoxy (he was a political conservative, but not a reliable one). He was a good critic and an entertainingly fearless writer, and siccing him on the latest Paul Verhoeven/Joe Eszterhas (the director-writer combo who had collaborated famously on Basic Instinct three years before) sexfest seemed like a good idea at the time.

While I expected the unexpected, I didn’t expect Tony to actually like the movie. But he did - and he liked it without the usual, “it’s-so bad-it’s-good” qualifications. He turned in a genuine positive review.

“The first law of advertising is that sex sells, but the canniest marketing gurus know this is an almost useless oversimplification,” was how Tony began his review. “Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven knows this too, as he artfully displays in his newest and most controversial film, Showgirls.” Tony then proceeds to “assess [Showgirls] on its merits” which he claims are “considerable.”

“Showgirls is not Citizen Kane. It’s not even A Clockwork Orange or Midnight Cowboy, its distant cousins,” he writes. “But it succeeds in providing rollicking entertainment and an in your face reassessment of society’s sex-centered mindset. A richly seriocomic moral tops it all off.

“Verhoeven and Eszterhas ... are sending up their own work with almost skittish delight. But this runs deeper than self-parody. They’ve become literalists without pretense, stripped of nuance.

“They tell us: Society is sick. We didn’t create it. We just report it. Here it is. Wallow in it. Afterward, if you can summon up the requisite strength, rise above it.”

Eszterhas was famously paid $2 million for his Showgirls script, and the movie arguably ruined his Hollywood career. None of his screenplays were produced from 1997 to 2006; since then he has only written the little seen (albeit well-regarded) 2008 Hungarian film Children of Glory.

More from Tony’s review:

“‘In America, everyone is a gynecologist’ says a lecherous Japanese businessman, who is casting a lascivious gaze on the erotic dancers at a Las Vegas strip club. Perhaps he’s right. Although sex clubs in many European and Asian countries make those in the United States seem like Sunday School, no nation can rival ours in its abnormal obsession with sex.

“That is Verhoeven’s point. For all the talk of the copious nudity in this film ... the director’s most piercing gaze is on the gap that separates our thoughts and actions.

“Verhoeven fills that space with the horrifying, netherworldish sounds and images of a noxious subculture ... It is a very real environment, and it mocks the political correctness of the comfortably clueless.

“Elizabeth Berkley, in her feature-film debut, is stunning as aspiring dancer Nomi Malone, who hitchhikes to Vegas with no credentials other than a beautiful face and a Vargas-girl body. As she claws her way up from ‘lap-dancing’ with drunken businessmen at a seedy joint to starring in a topless musical extravaganza at the Stardust Hotel, the filmgoer is pulled into her skin.

“Verhoeven neatly plays most of the movie from Nomi’s viewpoint, except when she’s dancing in the clubs. Then, we feel as though we’re a patron of that club, watching with sorrow, pity and rapt fascination.”

Tony also liked the work of Alan Rachins - “loathsome as the reptilian director” of the Stardust revue Nomi eventually joins; Gina Gershon as an aging lesbian stripper - “a corrosive, cocaine-snorting mix of Darth Vader and Cruella DeVille”; and Kyle MacLachlan - “amusing as the M.B.A. yuppie who has sunk deep into the ooze and become the Stardust’s entertainment director.”

While Tony didn’t find the nudity gratuitous - or more precisely, found the gratuitous nudity essential to Verhoeven’s vision of a culture obsessed with explicitness - he found the movie’s language, which “sometimes leeches over from the merely profane to the hideously scatological ... a sin of excess that develops into a weakness.”

Summing up, Tony decided Showgirls was a message movie, a cautionary tale that asked us to consider our psychic hygiene, the very state of our souls.

Whew.

I’m not saying Tony was right. He wasn’t. Showgirls is a bad film, borderline inept, with an anti-erotic toxic charge about it. It deserved all the mean things people said about it.

But just because Tony was wrong doesn’t mean he didn’t write a great review.

E-mail:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 07/09/2010

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