In defence of ‘Showgirls’

It’s been a while since a movie has run into such a wave of consistently poor reviews as ‘Showgirls’. These things tend to be self-­perpetuating. One bad critique leads to another, and after half a dozen turn up, it’d take someone very brave — or very stupid -­- to put their head above the parapet and write something like:

‘Showgirls’ isn’t actually that bad.

There, I’ve said it. Governments have not collapsed. The Earth still rotates around the sun. And Paul Verhoeven has probably just fallen off his wife in surprise.

The problem is, a lot of reviewers seem to have totally missed the film’s point. To illustrate this, let’s take one specific review, from ’Time Out’, in which the appropriately-named Wally Hammond goes off at the deep end, starting on the wrong foot by describing it as a “sexploitation movie“. Nope. Exploitation, yes, but it can hardly be about bonking, when there is precisely one sex scene in the whole 135 minutes. Nipples abound, for sure, but it’s all incredibly casual nudity, clearly not even trying to be erotic. Now, I can understand people being peeved about this, given advertising which promised an awful lot more than the film delivered, but ‘Showgirls’ simply didn’t deserve to be an NC-17 film, banned in Ireland, and cut in Britain, I think the French got it about right: uncut, and with a ’12’ rating.

For this is unquestionably a moral tale, illustrated by the fate of the heroine’s friend Molly, who spends the whole movie gagging to meet a rock star. When she does, she is gang-raped by him and his entourage. That’s a miniature version of Nomi’s rise and fall: sometimes, when you get what you want, the price is just too high. It’s all about power, not sex.

Wally’s next complaint is that the film is “completely free of sympathetic characters“. I guess he hasn’t been paying attention to Verhoeven’s career, or he’d have realised that the director of ‘Basic Instinct’, ‘Flesh + Blood’ and ‘The Fourth Man’ doesn’t exactly tend towards standard, rubber-stamped heroics beloved in Hollywood. Even in ‘Robocop’ and ‘Total Recall’, he warped things significantly from the norm. If you want a sugar-coated, fluffy-pink view of America, do not watch a Paul Verhoeven film. Hammond indeed appears not to have watched this one, judging by his inability to tell the difference between “hot-pants” and “jeans”. That kind of dumb error does lend credence to any suggestion that some reviewers wrote their pieces before, or even instead of, seeing the movie!

Sure, ‘Showgirls’ is tacky and sleazy — with some of the most startlingly vapid dialogue I’ve ever heard. But it’s about Las Vegas, f’heaven’s sake, possibly the leading place in our Solar System as far as tack, sleaze and vapidity goes. Whaddya you expect, Noel Coward? That even discounts the irony obviously present behind comments like “if you want to last longer than a week, you give me a blowjob”, which went well over the heads of many writers. Bearing this in mind, there was hardly a false note in the movie. Every incident on its own was eminently plausible, all ‘Showgirls’ does is condense them in time & space, standard TV soap technique.

Wally bemoans: “the ample opportunities for camp excess are stringently avoided“. But if he’d take the whole movie as an exercise in serious, rather than camp, excess — after all, Verhoeven is probably the least “camp” director in Hollywood — he would probably have had a far better time. Note that I mean serious, and not serious. Taken on that level, it’s two hours of solidly melodramatic entertainment, like a Busby Berkeley musical with tits. With MGM one of the co-producers, Verhoeven is undoubtedly aware of the historical precedents.

Certainly,  Eszterhas’s script is not worth the alleged $3m+ fee, being little more than a tarted up Harold Robbins novel. And while we’re complaining, it’s at least half an hour and two minor characters too long, the Princ…er, Mr.Symbol songs grate horribly, and I don’t know where the $40m budget went. But the director plays with the audience more than it seems at first sight; even in something as carnal as the lap-dance sequence, there are interesting questions raised about precisely who’s screwing who. I do think history will be kind to it, and it will be better remembered than, say,  Oscar-nominated movies about talking livestock. Already, it’s done a lot better on video than at the cinema, which isn’t too surprising since it’s hardly a date movie, is it?

Here’s one final quote, from ‘What’s On in London’:

An impressive, wide-ranging cast in what is, at twisted heart, a decadent morality…not one of the characters commands our sympathy or affection …Betrayal, double-dealing, alarms and skirmishes follow each other in florid succession against suitably impressive – yet crumbling backgrounds.”

Oh, this didn’t relate to ‘Showgirls’, but to ‘Flesh and Blood’, Verhoeven’s 1985 period piece. Despite being set several hundred years and the odd continent apart, the two movies seem to have generated similar critical reaction, and met with equal financial failure, ‘Flesh and Blood’ being described as “Too politically incorrect and morally dark for the American market“. And there are distinct parallels with ‘Keetje Tippel’, another decade further back, in which Paul Verhoeven previously told the story of a young girl trying to make her fortune in the city (see TC16/17). Although in that movie, the heroine never looks back once she sets out on her career path, it is definitely a pointer towards ‘Showgirls’.

One note for optimism is that he bounced back after ‘Flesh and Blood’ with ‘Robocop’. It’ll be interesting to see what he makes of ‘Starship Troopers’, the Heinlein adaptation which is his next project. It’d certainly be a shame if one of the few true maverick directors in Hollywood was driven out because of misconceived and ill-considered reviews.