Is the 1995 Paul Verhoeven film SHOWGIRLS worthy of a deep dive of analysis? Is it worthy of a 92-minute documentary, one that doesn’t include a single new on-camera interview with any of the filmmakers or actors involved? These two questions swirled around my mind as I watched YOU DON’T NOMI, an earnest attempt to probe what made the film fail in its initial run and how it became a cult hit years later. It’s a bare-bones effort, relying mostly on clips and stills from the film to carry it visually, a doc that also relies mostly on the voice-overs of various critics and filmmaker Jeffrey McHale himself to provide the commentary. Their analysis is learned, if not particularly rigorous, making for an interesting documentary, but not a riveting one.
For those who don’t remember, or don’t want to, SHOWGIRLS was a big-budget Hollywood film about a comely drifter named Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) who ventures to Las Vegas and rises from sleazy stripper to headlining star on the strip. It was written by Joe Eszterhas, the hottest screenwriter in the business at the time, and directed by the acclaimed Paul Verhoeven, a Dutch director who made quite a splash with ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL in the years preceding it. In addition to Berkley, the film starred Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon, Robert Davi, Alan Rachins, and Glenn Plummer.
With all that talent aboard, how did the film go so wrong? McHale apotheosizes that a host of issues contributed to the failure with both critics and audiences. It was supposed to be a sexy, modern take on ALL ABOUT EVE, a warts-and-all show biz tale about the rivalry between newcomer Nomi and established headliner Cristal Connors (Gershon). Unfortunately, Eszerhas’ script was vulgar and cheesy, with nary one line of dialogue that could touch the cleverness of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning screenplay. (At one point, Nomi and Cristal wax sentimental about eating “doggie chow” during their struggles to make it in show biz. That’s about as witty as SHOWGIRLS got.)
Worse was Verhoeven’s broad direction. McHale points out that the slick production was often gorgeous, but every scene was pitched with the same gonzo energy that he brought to his two sci-fi hits and that style didn’t work for this female character study. Verhoeven was also a notorious bad boy when it came to exploiting violence and sex onscreen, reaching a zenith with his big hit BASIC INSTINCT, but the garish nudity and brutish set-pieces he applied to SHOWGIRLS did the material no favors.
McHale’s best analysis is in how he dissects what Berkley did with the lead, and how her over-the-top take, evident whether she was chomping on french fries or devouring MacLachlan in a pool, turned Nomi into a crazed and unlikable central character. McHale makes some interesting connections between Berkley’s Nomi Malone and the equally intense character of Jessie Spano that she played from 1989-1993 on the Saturday morning kids’ show SAVED BY THE BELL. Both were dancers, hyperactive, and always trying way too hard. McHale almost suggests that Nomi might actually be Jessie after high school, but he’s wiser to point the finger at Verhoeven for letting the young actress overact as she did in every scene.
All of the critics McHale interviewed easily recall how SHOWGIRLS was a misfire, a film wholly at odds with itself. It wanted to be both serious and silly, titillating and feminist. It ended up neither fish nor fowl, well, maybe foul, setting the film up for its resurrection as a campy cult film decades later. The interviews would’ve been enhanced by seeing the critics as they speak, and why this staple of the documentary genre wasn’t followed is a mystery here in YOU DON’T NOMI.
Another strange choice that McHale makes is to incorporate clips from Verhoeven’s other films throughout the film, adapted to include SHOWGIRLS art and references. If you don’t know Verhoeven’s Dutch horror film THE FOURTH MAN, you’ll have no idea why McHale includes clips of Jeroen Krabbe here interacting with SHOWGIRLS promotional materials. It’s trying to be funny but comes off as mostly distracting.
The best part of YOU DON’T NOMI comes in the final 20 minutes when McHale analyzes how SHOWGIRLS has lent itself to numerous satirical spoofs in the last decade. One of the more inspired riffs is a musical that ran Off-Broadway entitled SHOWGIRLS: THE MUSICAL starring April Kidwell. She not only does a spot-on imitation of Berkley, but Kidwell’s tragic backstory lends this documentary some genuine gravitas and tears. Still, McHale fails to film her for his doc as well.
Time may have rendered SHOWGIRLS a “comedy” but it was hardly that when it came out. There was an earnestness to it that cannot be revised now, no matter how many decades have passed. The film I saw in the theaters earned little laughter and was ridiculously tin-eared in its rendering of Vegas shows, feminism, or societal commentary. Perhaps that is why none of the filmmakers or cast talked about it here. They benefit little by continuing to be associated with such a cinematic mess.
We can all learn from bad art as well as good art, but even though McHale devoted so much time to SHOWGIRLS, it doesn’t make me feel any better about the disaster that the film was and still is. And while a lot of YOU DON’T NOMI is compelling, the documentary didn’t convince me that SHOWGIRLS is worthy of that much analysis either.