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VOD Review: You Don’t Nomi

July 3, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

When Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who had previously crafted Hollywood hits out of pulpy material with RoboCop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, released Showgirls in 1995, it was universally derided and became a massive critical and commercial flop.

It’s not a surprise, since Verhoeven’s NC-17 stripper melodrama is campy, wildly overacted, filled with poorly developed characters, and has atrociously bad dialogue. It’s also been accused of being sexist and misogynistic, with its full-frontal nudity and graphic depiction of sexual assault. The film went on to receive a record thirteen Razzie nominations and seven wins, including for Worst Picture, Worst Director and Worst Actress.

But there are some who have reclaimed Showgirls as a work of campy entertainment, (which it admittedly is at times), or even, get this, a misbegotten work of art that was judged too harshly upon its release but time has revealed to be something deeper and something better. This debate is the subject of director Jeffrey McHale’s new documentary You Don’t Nomi, which is now available digitally after enjoying a run on the festival circuit last year.

Named for Elizabeth Berkley’s lead character in Showgirls, a young woman named Nomi Malone who settles in Las Vegas to become a stripper, You Don’t Nomi charts the film’s rise from box office bomb to cult classic, and how it got there. McHale explores this complicated legacy through an often entertaining and well edited mix of movie clips and interviews with a variety of critics and scholars, including those who argue that Showgirls is a sly commentary on American culture or even a secret masterpiece.

As it turns out, there is a lot to unpack about Showgirls. There is Berkley’s too-intense performance in the film, which was meant to launch her movie career following her role on the sitcom Saved by the Bell, but instead caused her stardom to fizzle out. And there’s the trashy, heavily clichéd screenplay by Joe Eszterhas, who previously wrote Basic Instinct for Verhoeven, that is wrought with laughably bizarre dialogue and gives us characters who at times barely even register as real people.

There’s also the appeal of Showgirls to queer audiences, with its themes of “chosen family” and owning your sexuality as you seek a new life in the big city striking a chord with the LGBTQ community. This has caused the film to be reclaimed by drag queens like Peaches Christ, one of the film’s subjects, who has started hosting interactive screenings. In this way, Showgirls has come to be embraced as a work of camp akin to Valley of the Dolls, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Mommie Dearest.

McHale foregoes on-screen interviews with his subjects and has them appear solely through voiceover, (a choice that makes it hard to tell who is speaking at times), providing commentary for the assemblage of movie clips and archival footage that make up his film. In a particularly quirky artistic touch, we are shown footage from Verhoeven’s other films with images from Showgirls edited onto screens within these scenes. At times, You Don’t Nomi does feel slightly scattershot in its assembly, and the arguments can get a bit repetitive, but the discussions are kept mostly interesting.

The voices range from David Schmader, who recorded a comedic commentary track for the special edition DVD of Showgirls and is somewhat dismissive of reads of the film that ascribe it more deeper meaning, to film critic Haley Mlotek, who helps provide context for how the film fits into Verhoeven’s oeuvre, and the cynical view of American culture that underpins all of his non-European works. Lines are drawn and comparisons made between his early Dutch films, to his Hollywood movies, and finally his post-Showgirls European works like Elle.

Also among the subjects is Toronto’s own Adam Nayman, who literally wrote a book on the subject of critically reevaluating the film; a small tome entitled It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls. The film even adopts the basic structure of Nayman’s book, breaking it up into three chapters that evaluate the film first as a “piece of shit,” then as a “masterpiece,” and finally as a “masterpiece of shit.” I haven’t read his book, but I must admit that within the film, Nayman often makes a pretty flimsy case for Showgirls being anything other than a guilty pleasure that he has convinced himself has some sort of artistic value.

Nayman, who admits that he first saw Showgirls as a fourteen year old boy when it came out in 1995, often waxes poetic about the visual language of the film and Verhoeven’s use of mirrors. Early on in the documentary, Nayman talks about how good the editing and cinematography is in the film, likening it to a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic. He then arrogantly dismisses viewers who disagree with his assessment of Showgirls being a visually beautiful work as “fucking morons.”

Nayman points to that infamous lunch scene in Showgirls where Berkley and co-star Gina Gershon cross the 180 degree line as an example of the movie’s deeper symbolism, meant to show a shifting power dynamic. But there is little concrete evidence that this crossing of the frame was anything other than an error on behalf of either the cinematographer or editor. Besides, even if it had been a symbolic choice, it’s still heavy-handed and not exactly deep. Not every metaphor is meaningful.

Nayman is countered out by film critic Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, who does not share his view that Showgirls is secretly brilliant, and is much more critical. Near the end, McHale brings in April Kidwell, star of the off-Broadway production Showgirls! The Musical!, who talks in detail about why she found it so cathartic to play Nomi on stage. This nicely ties into a larger discussion about the film’s treatment of women, including that uncomfortably brutal rape scene. There is interesting debate over whether or not Showgirls is misogynist in and of itself, or if it is a largely misunderstood commentary on misogyny.

The big question here is whether or not Verhoeven knew that he was making something campy, or if he intended to make a serious drama and failed at doing so. Verhoeven has since claimed it was the former, (and was even the first director to actually show up and accept his Razzies, tongue firmly in cheek), but a pretentious “making of” book featuring essays and photos from the production that he published at the time of its release strongly suggests the latter.

Actor Kyle MacLachlan has also gone on record to say that Verhoeven was treating the material with the utmost seriousness while on-set, so who knows? Maybe it’s both. The answer to this question of whether Showgirls is a subversive satire of sex and violence in American culture, through-lines that are found in Verhoeven’s other works, or a clunky and exploitative piece of trash that is meant to celebrate excess without much to actually say, is largely subjective.

I can live with the argument that Showgirls has some value as a work of camp, and there are many scenes that are entertaining in a “so bad it’s good” sort of way. But it’s hard to make a case for it being something more than that. There is a world of difference between admiring the film as a piece of great trash, and trying to argue that it is in fact great art.

But it sure is fun to entertain this thought for ninety minutes in You Don’t Nomi, which allows us to experience and enjoy the best-worst moments of Showgirls, (that over the top pool sex scene, that wistful discussion about eating doggy chow, etc.), in a contextualized setting.

You Don’t Nomi is now available on a variety of digital and VOD platforms, including iTunes.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2020 6:08 am

    Enjoyed this more than the actual film.


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