you_dont_nomi

‘You Don’t Nomi’ Respects ‘Showgirls’ Enough to Take Its Badness Seriously

This thought-provoking documentary reconsiders the 1995 camp classic, exploring why we can’t let go of its engrossing, tawdry portrait of sex, ambition and the American dream

Where were you when you first saw Showgirls

I was at the theater opening night on September 22, 1995, excited to witness a disaster. Armed with Kenneth Turan’s lavish dismissal in the Los Angeles Times — “[T]his nominally risqué story of naked ambition among Las Vegas showgirls has somehow managed to make extensive nudity exquisitely boring,” he declared — my friends and I couldn’t wait to laugh as this NC-17 train wreck, and we weren’t alone. Our packed audience was filled with people similarly primed to mock, and the movie gave us plenty of material: Just about everything Elizabeth Berkley did as Nomi, the clearly talentless, possibly deranged dancer trying to make her way in Vegas, made us cackle. 

Showgirls thought it was saying something profound — about America, about stardom, about Puppy Chow — which just made the whole thing more deliciously awful. If it weren’t for its utterly ugly rape scene, Showgirls would be in my personal Top 10 of the most purely enjoyable big-screen viewing experiences I’ve ever had. Its colossal ineptitude was a delight to behold.

And yet, I’ve never stopped thinking about Showgirls, which isn’t true of most bad movies I see. Incompetence is commonplace in film — mediocre artists make mediocre work all the time — but the artistry of director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ failure was something unique. I have always sincerely believed that what made Showgirls so fascinatingly bad was that it was constructed with such care. On a script level, it’s a perfectly plotted star-is-born narrative, charting Nomi’s rise through the stripping ranks and the bad men she meets along the way, and Verhoeven (responsible for RoboCop, Basic Instinct and other exceedingly entertaining films) once again demonstrated his ability to craft engrossingly lurid sequences. Showgirls is supremely watchable because, on a certain level, it’s so well made — except for the dumb characters, clichéd story and bad acting, of course. 

But in recent years, Showgirls has been embraced — separately as a beloved camp classic and as a misunderstood masterpiece — and filmmaker Jeffrey McHale gives both factions plenty of room to talk in You Don’t Nomi, a thoroughly engaging and thoughtful documentary about this 25-year-old cinematic catastrophe. There’s nothing more boring than someone proudly declaring a maligned movie as a secret “guilty pleasure” — and, equally, I don’t have patience for the “well, actually” crowd, which talks down to you about why you don’t “get” why something bad is, really, amazing. Which is another reason I love You Don’t Nomi: It does neither, instead offering a smartly-argued, conscientious reckoning with a disparaged movie and its stubborn hold on our culture. Like me, you can absolutely believe that Showgirls is terrible, but you will walk away from You Don’t Nomi with a greater appreciation for this film’s strange power — and also be left with much to ponder about why we make the judgments that we do about bad art.

McHale has gathered film critics, obsessives and performers — including April Kidwell, the creator and star of I, Nomi, a one-woman musical-comedy riff on the movie — to dissect Showgirls from every angle. But like Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, the terrific documentary about the people who believe there are secret meanings embedded in The Shining, McHale chooses not to show us his interview subjects, instead just having them speak in voiceover as we watch clips from Showgirls or Verhoeven’s other films, including his Dutch work before he came to America in the 1980s.

If you’re just looking to revel in Showgirls’ badness, however, You Don’t Nomi will disappoint. Instead of snide jokes, the documentary provides a lively but rigorous deep dive into the film’s themes and strategies, illustrating how they’re informed by the director’s five-decade body of work. But don’t worry if you’re not a Verhoeven expert: McHale is adept at making this potentially dry critical-studies discussion quite breezy. And it’s all in service of an excellent question: Why can’t we get enough of Showgirls?

It’s a compliment to McHale that I never knew for sure exactly how he feels about Showgirls, allowing his panel of voices to offer competing claims and, sometimes, refute one another. (There’s even a safe space for dissenters, like former San Francisco Examiner critic Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, who hated Showgirls then and now.) McHale permits some personal stories to enter into the conversation, particularly when Kidwell quite movingly talks about how her connection to Showgirls (and Berkley) very much saved her life. But unlike Room 237, which was interested in the men and women behind the theories, You Don’t Nomi largely sticks to Showgirls, letting these impassioned individuals give us new ways to consider a movie that most everyone proclaimed the worst of 1995. 

One of the most welcome perspectives comes from Adam Nayman, film critic for The Ringer, who defended Showgirls at length in his book It Doesn’t Suck and here provides a measured, insightful reading of the movie. He makes a compelling case for Verhoeven’s immense skill — and also shrewdly comments on the fact that viewers seem willing to appreciate the filmmaker’s satirical side when he’s riffing on American violence (like in RoboCop) but get far more uncomfortable when it comes to sex.

This notion of whether or not Showgirls is “sexy” is one of You Don’t Nomi’s most rewarding through-lines. When Showgirls hit theaters, it proudly brandished its NC-17 rating, which most films would do everything in their power to avoid. But You Don’t Nomi explains why that adults-only designation raised expectations for the film’s sexual content — which then made it a target when viewers found its nudity laughable rather than racy.

That reaction proved toxic, and McHale sharply illustrates how (male) critics went too far, especially in their callous assessment of Berkley’s attractiveness while ripping on the film. (There’s a Siskel & Ebert clip included that’s especially appalling.) Even those who despise Showgirls will have a newfound sympathy for Berkley, the former Saved by the Bell cast member and expert dancer who gave her all to what could have been a star-making performance. Instead, she was eviscerated by the press in such personal, brutal ways that it effectively killed her career. You Don’t Nomi convincingly argues that a fair amount of sexism and puritanism led to that public shaming, although the documentary offers a happy ending of sorts for Berkley that’s unexpectedly touching.

Additional pushback comes from writers like Matt Baume and performers such as Peaches Christ, who discuss how Showgirls spoke to LGBTQ viewers in ways that weren’t apparent to a heteronormative audience. (The documentary explores Showgirls popularity as a Rocky Horror-style theatrical event, the film’s seemingly overblown sexiness transformed into an expression of sexual liberation.) McHale doesn’t want to convert you into a Showgirls stan, but he does want to challenge your negative impressions — and to make you question whether your lens for disliking the movie is biased, even patriarchal. 

Not that You Don’t Nomi is afraid to call out what’s indisputably terrible about Showgirls. That aforementioned rape scene — which is inflicted on Nomi’s friend Molly (Gina Ravera) in order for our main character to have a “heroic” revenge scene in response — is deservedly chastised, and in general, the documentary eviscerates Showgirls’ misogyny. (The documentary also examines Verhoeven’s history of graphic sexual assault scenes in his movies, which happen to both men and women.) Considerable time, too, is spent debunking the idea that Verhoeven always conceived the movie as an elaborate tongue-in-cheek satire. (Don’t believe that revisionist history.) If anything, it’s the film’s sincerity that makes it so juicy — and it’s what distinguishes transcendent trash like Showgirls from laboriously orchestrated modern-day Sharknado crap, which tries so hard to be bad that it’s tedious.

Badmouth Showgirls all you want, but you could never call it tedious — it’s too filled with life to be boring. To that end, You Don’t Nomi freely acknowledges what’s hypnotic about Showgirls — how it presents something plainly titillating about American society’s avarice and horniness, which is transformed into a distorted Vegas nightmare populated by craven, ridiculous individuals who often act bizarrely and say the stupidest things. (Decades later, the unintentionally hilarious line “It must be weird not having anybody come on you” still fills me with awe.)

Despite Showgirls’ many, many failings, what You Don’t Nomi’s panel of experts makes clear is that we love/hate this movie because, on some level, its core message — that we’re all desperate, horrible people hungry to exploit others and be successful — is undeniably true. “I think we’re still talking about Showgirls because we’re not done with it,” writer Haley Mlotek says at the beginning of You Don’t Nomi. “I don’t think we’re done with it because I don’t think we’ve figured out what Showgirls means as a film.” 

More likely, we’re repulsed by Showgirls, in part, because we do know what it means, and we don’t like the mirror it holds up to us. That the movie is actually terrible allows us to feel superior to that truth. But it doesn’t make it any less true.