A zany, larger-than-life piece of Las Vegas satire, Showgirls is a depraved saga. Director Paul Verhoeven is at it again in this send-up of sex and betrayal, while Joe Eszterhas is responsible for the bloated screenplay. It is apparently the only NC-17 rated picture to be granted wide release in the United States.
Showgirls is one of those “love it or loathe it” deals. It’s gained some ground in critical assessment over the last while, with the finer notes of Verhoeven’s satire coming to the fore. And it is indeed a clever piece of trash, with fanatical acting, garish pomp and general bizarreness adding up to an overlong hunk of pure entertainment.
Elizabeth Berkley stars as Nomi Malone, a drifter on her way to Las Vegas with designs on being a dancer. After she has her stuff stolen, she meets seamstress Molly (Gina Ravera) and they become friends. Nomi gets a job at a strip joint and is invited backstage at the Stardust Casino, where she meets Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon). Connors is the star of Goddess, a gaudy nude revue.
Nomi sets her sights on getting into the show and develops a love/hate relationship with Connors. She eventually lands a spot and climbs the greasy ladder of stardom. She snags Connors’ boyfriend Zack (Kyle MacLachlan), who is the Stardust’s entertainment director, and discovers a world of manipulation, sex and yacht conventions.
There are subplots galore in Showgirls and the movie is, to be kind, a distended debacle. A relationship with dancer James (Glenn Plummer) is one of the many teases in Verhoeven’s epic, but it fizzles before it strikes fire.
Wisely, Verhoeven uses the side ventures as a way to underline just how dastardly Las Vegas is. And he bookends the piece with mirror images, as Nomi discovers and rediscovers an Elvis-influenced driver on her way in and out of the Glitter Gulch.
Unfortunately, Verhoeven’s tendency to overdo it can alienate. While he does inter subtler lines of satire, the frantic style is disarming and sometimes off-putting. Everything glistens in a constant glow of coated glamour, like the façades of Sin City’s neon hovels, and the performances overreach to outshine the ornamentation.
There’s nothing restrained about Berkley’s take, as she rabbits from quiet to fire. She’s either blowing her stack or purring like a kitten. But at least it’s reasonably coupled with her dance moves, as she rockets through bell-shaped turns, stomps and sweltering revolutions. Everything about is sudden, raucous.
It’s kind of magical. Gershon’s cunning stunts contend well, but Berkley is such a force of eccentricity that there’s nothing anyone can do when she’s up in the rafters. Perhaps that’s the point, as the protagonist becomes such an extraordinarily captivating circus that middle ground is impossible to find.
Indifference is the last thing Verhoeven spreads with Showgirls. Through the silliness of Berkley’s performance, the rough nonsense of the Goddess production and the infinite double-crosses, he finds certainty in a churning pool sex scene and plunges Nomi into a duck-and-cover set of moves that draws on Sharon Stone’s Basic Instinct theatrics.
Like the hectic Goddess, Showgirls is all about the show. It lacks the care of Basic Instinct, but Verhoeven’s sacred cows are essentially the same. After tackling violence with RoboCop and Total Recall, sex is the thing and the director goes for the jugular. The results are muddled, odd and altogether entertaining.