For tits sake

The biggest boobs in the campy fleshfest Showgirls are its writer and director

If you have to compare watching the NC-17 "erotic drama" Showgirls to a non-cinematic experience, it might be getting a mammogram.

There are dozens of breasts on display in this film, and they are constantly being poked, prodded, criticized, praised, bitten, licked, rubbed with ice cubes, and generally wielded as symbols of antagonistic lust or wicked empowerment.

Large, shapely breasts are certainly an important commodity in the profession being explored here--both stripping and "dancing," which in the high-paying casinos and hotels of Las Vegas means being able to remove your clothes in step with an ensemble.

The real-life girls who (literally) put their behinds on the line to make an honest living have to deal with moral complexities most of us only imagine--since I am, in effect, selling the sight of my naked body to patrons who pay admission to see it, where does my sense of self-respect begin and their demands end?

This is just one of the tantalizing questions Showgirls poses yet never really addresses, because the filmmakers are too busy reminding us we've paid admission to a film that proudly pursued the contemporary equivalent of an "X" rating (in his contract, director Paul Verhoeven demanded that the studio not tamper with his final cut, even if it wanted to secure an "R" rating for as wide a national release as possible).

Of course, all the advance controversy over the release of the film (which has included the refusal of many prominent daily newspapers, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, to carry ads for it) has blurred the distinction among ratings that can be made only by those who've ever seen a truly pornographic film. Showgirls merely teases us with lots of sexually suggestive dance moves, acres of exposed female flesh, dirty words, and a couple of extravagantly photographed sex scenes that are, in themselves, no more explicit than what viewers flocked to see in last year's R-rated Disclosure.

In short, it's important to keep this movie in perspective amid whatever controversy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the film's distributor, hopes to stir upon its release. Quite simply, no matter how many self-righteous media critics cite it as an example of our deteriorating national standards of entertainment, Showgirls is not pornography. Unfortunately, it's also not entertainment, despite the combined, overheated efforts of Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Robocop) and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Flashdance). Saddled with an unreliable cast and a desire to "push the envelope" in places where an intelligent story would pause, Verhoeven and Eszterhas have created one of the worst cinematic debacles of the year, a film that rewards you with occasional, unintended, but very hearty laughs during its interminably long duration.

There's a trash classic struggling to break free from the tedious pace, and the proceedings carry a certain glossy, self-assured composure thanks to Verhoeven, the Dutch-born filmmaker who has been responsible for several engrossing projects since he came to America. Indeed, when you watch movies like the 1985 Rutger Hauer-Jennifer Jason Leigh vehicle Flesh and Blood; the futuristic satire of bloodthirsty American audience demands in Robocop; and the whip-smart Arnold Schwarzenegger epic Total Recall, you're struck by how Verhoeven can take the most banal formulas and splash them across the screen with a Shakespearean eye for exploitable tragedy.

He first collided with Eszterhas, a two-fisted, hairy-chested legend among screenwriters, during 1992's Basic Instinct, a $400 million international smash that drew protests from certain American gay and lesbian activists for all the wrong reasons. Sure, every "guilty party" in that gaseous, sometimes thrilling no-brainer expressed some sort of bisexual tendency, but protesters ignored the towering, star-making lead performance delivered by the statuesque Sharon Stone. If Stone wasn't exactly the most admirable gay character in contemporary American cinema, she was certainly one of the most glamorous, thanks to the men who created her cartoonish role.

Glamour is that elusive alchemical elixir which obsesses Eszterhas and Verhoeven, a preoccupation which makes the purist film fan want to grant this moviemaking marriage almost any social, political, and moral concession necessary in order to let them tell their tales. They struck a goldmine with Basic Instinct, a popcorn thriller that would have deserved to drown in its own misanthropy if it weren't for the efforts of Stone and seasoned woman-warrior Michael Douglas.

Showgirls, however, hasn't a single performance strong enough to transform the plodding idiocy of Eszterhas' script. Most of the people in this movie are sharks, caricaturish skin peddlers, and eager opportunists who have a bottom line that stretches far below what even the most laidback among us would consider to be decent behavior. Eszterhas and Verhoeven want to drag us through the glittery mud of show-biz, but they can barely muster enough genuinely shocking behavior to soil our shoes.

The film's rag-doll protagonist Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley from the Saturday morning show "Saved By the Bell") hitchhikes her way to Las Vegas with dreams of becoming a famous dancer. She winds up performing as a stripper in a sleazy club known as The Cheetah and becomes roommates with the seamstress Molly (Gina Rivera), who works with one of the top dance acts in Vegas, a show called "Goddess" which stars the ultimate Las Vegas showgirl--a sensuous provocateur named Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon).

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