“You fuck them without fucking them,” says a showgirl’s friend about her relationship to her customers. That sums up Showgirls, a movie I expected to be sleazy, offensive, and bad, but not boring. That it’s all four at once — often in the same scene — doesn’t make it the year’s worst film, but it does make it the year’s biggest scam. I didn’t go to Showgirls for the nudity, which God knows is available elsewhere, and I didn’t go hoping for art or even a coherent story. What I wanted, I guess, was some justification for the hype, some electricity, some heat — something resembling a movie. This was the first major-studio film to be classified NC-17 (No Children Under 17), but there’s nothing in Showgirls that you haven’t seen in a dozen unrated “erotic thrillers,” or even in R-rated movies of a less repressive period, so the NC-17 rating is once again squandered.
Showgirls is all jiggle and no sizzle. That’s especially surprising coming from director Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch bad boy whose previous movie, Basic Instinct, both parodied and buried the erotic-thriller genre. Plunging into the cynical sex-slime of Joe Eszterhas’ script, Verhoeven operated with such transgressive-aggressive glee that the film holds up today as a flustered film noir farce. Showgirls, also written by Eszterhas, isn’t nearly as offensive or as guiltily pleasurable. Under the surface of writhing bodies and smutty talk lies … a morality play circa 1935, in which our innocent heroine (or relatively innocent in Eszterhas’ world — she’s an ex-hooker) learns that Las Vegas is full of bad men. The movie seems to say that life as a Vegas stripper would be fulfilling and prosperous if not for the crude sexists who run and patronize the clubs. You mean crude sexists like Verhoeven and Eszterhas?
Elizabeth Berkley, unknown to me (she was a regular on TV’s Saved by the Bell), makes her screen debut as the heroine, Nomi Malone, a drifter who hitches to Vegas and sets herself up at a cheesy nightclub. Those unfamiliar with lap-dancing can learn something from the early scenes, in which Nomi rubs her naked, sweaty merchandise all over Kyle MacLachlan (playing the “entertainment manager” of a competing club, and occasionally showing his embarrassment in the role). MacLachlan, who pays Nomi the ultimate compliment (he creams his jeans), has come to Nomi’s club with his superstar showgirl Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon). Cristal is one of those nasty, elite Eszterhas bisexual puppetmasters — you meet one every day. She zeroes in on Nomi, pulls strings to get her hired at her fancier club (which is basically Nomi’s club with slightly better decor), and has some sexual fixation on Nomi.
A fascinating movie could be made about the inner workings of the unapologetically retro Vegas clubs and the women who work there — how they interact with the clientele (who can’t all be leering pigs, as they are in this movie), how they separate their highly sexualized jobs from their home lives. Showgirls isn’t that movie. For one thing, Verhoeven doesn’t have the performers. Berkley and Gershon look their parts, but Berkley comes off as an unappealing bimbo — you look in her eyes and see Cheez Whiz — and Gershon, though coldly amusing in the Sharon Stone manner, has nothing to do except repeat her three or four basic expressions. Gina Ravera, as Nomi’s roomie Molly, suggests some warmth and depth, but Molly only exists as the movie’s drab conscience, and she endures an ugly rape scene that has various subtexts but doesn’t strike the emotional chord it should. Alan Rachins, such a great rat on L.A. Law all those years, is consistently funny as a hard-assed club owner, but his character is as poorly written as the rest.
And then there are the money scenes — the elaborate production numbers with bare-assed showgirls parading around the stage as fireballs go up and pouting male dancers writhe around them. It’s all very ’80s, like the hideous “Satan’s Alley” number at the end of Staying Alive; if this is what real nudie shows are like these days, I’d just as soon avoid Vegas. The dancing isn’t erotic, it’s aerobic. Honestly, I don’t get it. And if the ridiculous, thrashing sex scene in MacLachlan’s pool is supposed to get guys hard, it’ll most likely leave them as limp as the movie itself. Showgirls is the latest nasty-sex movie — a conservative genre in disguise, creating a world in which sex boils down to the user and the used, all of whom are degraded and guilty. Even the grossest porn is more cheerfully sexual than this movie. It’s a lap-dance, but it’s not likely to make anyone come.
“I’m erect,” says Rachins to Nomi, comparing his dick to her nipples. “Why aren’t you?” If Verhoeven and Eszterhas (the Erectile Duo) asked me the same question, I’d show them two videos to shut them up: Don’t Look Now, which contains the gentlest, most fumbling and naturalistic (and therefore hottest) lovemaking scene ever put on film, and any Astaire-Rogers musical, whose romantic dance numbers remain more erotically expressive than anything in Showgirls.