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).

Connors is the film's most consistently enjoyable character, a Texas-born "entertainer" who usually ends her public appearances and private woes with the dismissive signature "thanks, darlin'." As played by Gershon, who resembles Raquel Welch from her sex-kitten heyday in Fantastic Voyage (1966), Cristal is a cocaine-sniffing hedonist who's been pampered by her manager boyfriend (Kyle McLachlan) and the adoration of Vegas audiences for so long she's become a smug, spoiled, ruthless dinosaur. She can barely keep her jealousy in check when Malone bursts onto the scene, alternately helping and hindering the impetuous girl on her journey toward Vegas superstardom. Gershon, an impressive slut goddess in henna hair and inch-long lashes, struts across the wide screen with a semi-comical flourish that suggests she's in the wrong theater--the auditions for To Wong Foo are down the hall, ma'am.

This is the point where Showgirls attempts to become an All About Eve for the strip scene, but since Eszterhas writes such boneheaded dialogue for his characters, you're left to judge the people on their craven ambitions and illegal acts, not on any kind of larger philosophical view.

Indeed, as any student of either Eszterhas or Verhoeven should have figured out by now, these filmmakers wallow in the worst instincts of human nature. Whatever pleasure can be derived from their films involves the appreciation of reverse morality plays--we learn lessons about how to treat others based upon an explicit depiction of one individual humiliating another.

The betrayals in Showgirls are constant, catty, and campy--from one professional seducing another and then denying that person what he or she most wanted, to the climactic push of a dancer down the stairs to her premature retirement--this saga harbors more desperate ambitions than Valley of the Dolls and a whole season of "Peyton Place" lumped together. And since Verhoeven has absolutely no sense of humor about what he records, the audience is left to find its own moments of comic relief.

The hysterical pitch at which most of the events are played only contributes to the sense that future audiences will revere this movie as a camp classic.

One of the biggest culprits in the film is its star, Elizabeth Berkley, who was poignantly profiled in this month's issue of Premiere (the same piece reprints the rumor that Berkley and Verhoeven had an affair during the production). Although the libertarian viewer applauds Berkley for the professionalism required to appear completely naked in so many sequences, her thespian skills are a completely different matter. She appears to have taken acting classes from Molly Ringwald, based on the number of times she delivers an emotional moment with her lips.

Made even more ample by the makeup artist, Berkley's lips are the barometer of Showgirls' mood. You can bet if audience members are supposed to be shocked, then a closeup of Berkley will follow, wetting her plump, perpetually painted mouth. Otherwise, she is constantly in a distracting huff, chewing gum and refusing the offers of malevolent suitors whose wicked requests she barely understands. It's a stretch for any actress, but you can't help but feel shortchanged by Nomi.

There are many reasons why Showgirls should have rewarded you for checking your brain at the door. Unfortunately, Eszterhas and Verhoeven seem less interested in portraying America's forbidden fantasies than indulging their own. The overt lesbian flirtation between Nomi and Cristal climaxes with a sloppy tongue kiss, filmed so close up we think we're watching a nature documentary on the social habits of snails. But it's reflected in a far more annoying way in the friendship between Nomi and Molly. As best girlfriends who share the same trailer, we can expect some measure of intimacy between them, but not the kittenish physical interplay that the filmmakers encourage. If these ladies were meant to be lovers, then let them be lovers. But as strictly platonic buddies who must weather the awful storm of their chosen professions, they indulge in a lot of suspicious pawing, petting, and on-the-lips kissing.

The film ends with a feminist declaration in the finest cockeyed tradition of Russ Meyer--after Molly is brutally (and gratuitously) gang-raped, Nomi seeks revenge against the culprit. Topless, her blond hair pulled into an "I Dream of Jeannie" ponytail, shiny black high-heeled boots pulled up to her thighs, Nomi kicks the shit out of her friend's attacker.

Would that everything which came before possessed as much tacky pluck. The most depressing thing about Showgirls is that its widely hyped sideshow attractions are the most low-rent kind of prurience available to ticketbuyers today. Certain powerful lawmakers are poised to pass legislation which would significantly affect the outcome of popular entertainment, all in the name of protecting society from its own worst impulses. All of these are on constant display in Showgirls, but there is no corresponding intelligence to transform them into epic struggles.

Right-wing media watchers will decry this movie as a moral disaster, but in reality it's something far more profound--a failure of the imagination.

Showgirls. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gershon, Kyle McLachlan. Written by Joe Eszterhas. Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Now showing.

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