MUBI UK film review: Showgirls
Matthew Turner | On 25, Sep 2020
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon, Glenn Plummer, Robert Davi
Watch Showgirls online in the UK: MUBI UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
The thing about Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls is that it’s simultaneously one of the best and worst films ever made. A critical and commercial flop on its release in 1995, it has since gained a huge cult following and is a mainstay of the rep cinema circuit, where screenings are attended by people who shout the lines at the screen, dress up as their favourite characters and that sort of thing. (The film’s rise to cult success is well documented in Jeffrey McHale’s documentary You Don’t Nomi.)
On paper, Showgirls seemed like a sure thing: a sleazy retread of All About Eve, from the director and writer team of Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas, both still hot off the success of Basic Instinct three years earlier. Unfortunately, the film’s disastrous performance brought that hot streak to a crashing halt, with Verhoeven ditching Hollywood and heading back to Europe and Ezsterhas (once the highest paid scriptwriter in Tinseltown) destined never to repeat his earlier successes.
The film stars Elizabeth Berkley (previously known only for her role as Jessie on TV’s Saved By The Bell) as Nomi Malone, a dancer who comes to Vegas hoping to achieve her dream of starring in a stage show but quickly discovers a world of exploitation and sleaze. After seducing entertainment honcho Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan), Nomi gets her shot in one of Vegas’ biggest productions, but a rivalry with the show’s star – and Zack’s girlfriend – Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) threatens to derail her career before it’s even begun.
It’s fair to say that Showgirls is something of a wild ride and that you have to really commit to it if you’re going to enjoy it. Consequently, if you’re just going to judge it as a normal movie, then Showgirls is not really for you.
That said, it’s easy to see the cult appeal. Everything about the film is over-the-top, in-your-face glorious, from the bright, gaudy colours (lots of purples, pinks and reds) to the high energy levels in every scene to the uniquely terrible dialogue, the undoubted highlight of which is the oft-quoted scene in which Cristal and Nomi bond over the fact that they both used to eat dog food when they were poor. (“I used to love Doggy Chow too!”)
Similarly, Elizabeth Berkley’s performance is simply extraordinary, for both good and bad reasons. For one thing, she appears to be constantly boiling with anger, to the point where the majority of her scenes end with her throwing a tantrum and storming off. She brings that incredible energy to every scene, whether she’s channeling her anger into aggressive dance moves or having wild sex with Kyle MacLachlan in his pool. In fairness to Berkley, Verhoeven eventually claimed responsibilty for her performance, admitting that she acted exactly as directed. Thank goodness she listened, because she is a gift to GIF-makers everywhere.
And then, of course, there’s the sex. Or rather, the nudity, because other than an actually quite good lap-dance scene and the aforementioned pool scene, there’s actually no sex in the film at all. The nudity, on the other hand, is practically wall to wall, so much so that it’s borderline exhausting and very far from sexy.
In truth, not every element of the film works the way it was intended. The sequence in which Nomi’s likeable friend Molly (Gina Ravera) is gang-raped by an entitled rock star and his entourage – mostly as an excuse for Nomi to do some vengeful ass-kicking – is repulsive, poorly conceived and tonally jarring. It’s meant to illustrate the fact that showbusiness (whether Vegas or Hollywood) will destroy the innocent, but that point had already been made several times over.
In short, Showgirls fully deserves its cult status. As Nomi herself might say, it doesn’t suck. Long may it reign.
Showgirls is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.