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you don't nomi review
Documentary explores the legacy of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jeffrey McHale

you don't nomi poster

With pornography designed to cater for every possible fetish now readily available at the click of a button for free online, Hollywood has turned away from sex almost completely. Aside from the Fifty Shades trilogy, sex is almost nowhere to be found in today's mainstream Hollywood productions. Back in the '90s, sex was everywhere in movies, from blockbusters like Basic Instinct and Disclosure (real life sex addict Michael Douglas always seemed to be present in these movies) to straight to video erotic thrillers starring aging Playboy centrefolds. This reached its peak in 1995 with the release of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls, which may not have been the most explicit Hollywood movie ever, but offered a level of nudity not seen since the heyday of '70s sexploitation cinema.

The movie stars Elizabeth Berkeley as Nomi Malone, a 19-year-old drifter who arrives in Las Vegas with an ambiguous goal of becoming a dancer. Beginning in a strip club, Nomi eventually lands a part in 'Goddess', a full-blown Vegas spectacular in which headline dancer Crystal Connors (Gina Gershon) cavorts amid an array of topless girls and gay male dancers. Nomi and Crystal become enemies from the off as the film follows the template of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve, as an increasingly ruthless Nomi sets in motion plans to dislodge Crystal from her position as the show's headliner.

you don't nomi review

Showgirls bombed at the box office, failing to claw back its $45 million budget, a gobsmacking sum for a mid-90s movie, particularly one that's essentially a character drama with no large scale action set-pieces. Critics tore it to shreds, and it set a new record for nominations and wins at the Razzie awards in '95, eventually being awarded with the "honour" of Worst Picture of the Last Decade.

Like every critically mauled movie, Showgirls has undergone a re-evaluation. Some now see it as a misunderstood masterpiece while many still hold firm to their initial dismissal of Verhoeven's film as a turkey. At the time, it was difficult for me to evaluate it objectively as the film had been banned in Ireland and when I got to see it - on a bootleg VHS screened by one of my film school lecturers - I felt compelled to defend it, as we so often are when an authority figure denies you a pleasure.

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Prior to checking out director Jeffrey McHale's new documentary You Don't Nomi, I went back and rewatched Showgirls for the first time since the '90s. Is it as bad as its detractors suggest? Certainly not, but it is indeed awful. That said, it's the sort of bad movie only a good filmmaker can make. At two hours and 10 minutes, the movie flies by, as there's always something happening on screen that holds our attention. Berkeley's performance is uniquely odd, all flailing limbs and delivery dialled up to 11, and the script seems like it was written by someone who has never heard two humans have a conversation - Nomi and Crystal's dual confession to a love of dog food will have your jaw on the floor. Despite featuring two stunning actresses in the buff for most of their screen time, the film isn't remotely sexy. The sex scenes come off like the products of the imagination of a 13-year-old virgin, which is odd, as I suspect Verhoeven most certainly isn't inexperienced in that regard. But aside from the late addition of a rape subplot, which feels unnecessarily mean-spirited, Showgirls is mostly a highly entertaining, fun and campy experience. So am I a Showgirls defender? Yeah, I guess I am (I enjoyed Cats, so of course I'm going to go to bat for this). And I'm not alone, as You Don't Nomi illustrates.

McHale begins his doc with a brief bit of historical context before handing the reigns to a host of contributors - both defenders and detractors, but mostly the former - and breaking the examination down into three chapters - 'Piece of Shit', which argues that the film is worthless garbage; 'Masterpiece', which sees the film undergo a positive reevaluation; and 'Masterpiece of Shit', which suggests that Showgirls falls somewhere between the two.

you don't nomi review

Contributors include David Schmader, a writer who claims to have watched the film hundreds of times; April Kidwell, a sexual assault survivor who wrote and now performs a one-woman Showgirls musical as a means of coping with her trauma; and former critic Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, who sticks by her panning of the film, which is ironic given she co-wrote one of the genuinely worst movies of the '90s in Robert Altman's Prêt-à-Porter. Despite the varied contributions and viewpoints, it does get a little repetitive, with few of the narrators providing much critical insight over its overly padded 90 minutes.

You Don't Nomi is most intriguing when devoted to the analysis of critic Adam Neyman, who wrote an entire book defending Verhoeven's film titled 'It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls'. Neyman is equipped to tell us exactly why he believes Showgirls is a worthwhile movie, and draws fascinating parallels with the rest of Verhoeven's oeuvre, particularly his more explicitly confrontational Dutch movies.

If you're seeking the viewpoints of the filmmakers behind Showgirls you'll be left wanting. Verhoeven, Berkeley, Gershon, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas et al appear only in archive footage. I have to say I found what they had to say in such clips more interesting than that of most of the contributors to McHale's film.

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Aside from a diversion to a San Francisco theatre where Showgirls screenings are accompanied by lapdances from drag queens, there's a surprising lack of examination of how Verhoeven's film has been embraced by queer audiences. What struck me most on my rewatch of Showgirls is how it's a mega budget Hollywood production that's essentially about two women dancing both literally and figuratively around their mutual attraction. That it chooses the entertainment industry as its backdrop is all too telling, as is the fact that Nomi and Crystal only feel free to physically act on their lust once they've both ended their careers in said industry. Showgirls may be set in Vegas, but it's impossible not to view this as Verhoeven's commentary on the hypocrisy of so called liberal Hollywood, where to this day, gay performers are forced to remain in the closet to advance their careers.

Notable too is how the film's most vocally sleazy male characters - Robert Davi's strip club owner and Glenn Plummer's horny wannabe choreographer - are ultimately shown as far more decent than Kyle MacLachlan's Zack, who portrays himself as shy and sensitive, only to be revealed as one of the biggest scumbags Nomi encounters. Was this Verhoeven and Eszterhas's way of telling us that the real fiends in Hollywood are the ones making "respectable" movies? Given You Don't Nomi was made in the MeToo era, it's odd that it refuses to grapple with the industry exposé elements of Showgirls.

you don't nomi review

Showgirls also stands out as a rare Hollywood movie featuring a romantic entanglement between a black man and a white woman in which race is never brought up as an issue. Commentary on this dynamic is strangely absent from You Don't Nomi.

Cut out Neyman's segments and you'll have a very effective 20 minute video essay on the strengths of Showgirls. The remaining 70 minutes or so are patchy at best. A documentary on a movie should make you think about its subject in ways you haven't previously considered, but simply rewatching Showgirls will likely inspire your own re-evaluation - whether positive or negative - of Verhoeven's white elephant/whale in ways that You Don't Nomi barely broaches. 

You Don't Nomi is on MUBI UK now.