Getting to “Nomi”: Is “Showgirls” Really That Bad?

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Is Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) bipolar? Or does she just like poles?

After binging on three overseas “slow-burns” from Netflix — Broadchurch, Hinterland, and Bordertown — addictive, complex looks into child abuse, corporate corruption, fried corpses, more child abuse, troubled priests, and a woman held underwater for three days until her skin starts dissolving, it’s certainly nice to be confronted again by American-made sleaziness.

Jeffrey McHale’s supremely entertaining documentary, You Don’t Nomi, is a no-holds-barred celebration and vivisection of the seamy underbelly of what’s been enshrined as the worst film of the ’90s, Showgirls. That flop of flops was a $40-million follow-up of sorts for director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas who had paired up previously for the lesbian icepick-killer thriller Basic Instinct (1992). The duo thought they could do no wrong after their history of separate and paired successes (e.g. RoboCop (1987); Flashdance (1983)). Ah, well.

“It’s All About Eve in a G-string,” noted one critic on Showgirls.

This is “a story about a hyperactive eyeliner junkie out to rule the world,” summarized another.

“Valley of the Dulls” screamed a review, while The New York Times’ Janet Maslin added “that when a group of chimps get loose in the showgirls’ dressing room and all they do is defecate, the film enjoys a rare moment of good taste.”

The New York Times takes its potshots at a “masterpiece” or a “hot mess”?

Before I go on, please note that no prior knowledge of Showgirls is necessary to have a blast viewing Nomi. I’ve already gleefully watched this doc two-and-a-half times while I only could bear the original once. It was at a 10:00AM critics’ screening in 1995, and all I clearly remember is the infamous ice-cube nipple scene. The rest is a blur except that upon leaving the theater and walking along Sixth Avenue in extremely bright sunlight, I realized I could do without simulated swimming-pool copulations, lap dances, gang rapes, and hyperactive acting before noon. That’s been my credo ever since.

A quick synopsis of the original’s plot: Nomi Malone (Saved by the Bell’s Elizabeth Berkley in a career-killing performance) arrives in Las Vegas with a very big chip on her shoulder. You see, her father had killed her mother and then shot himself or vice versa. This easily angered lass dreams of being the lead of a show on the Strip just like Cristal Connors (a scintillating Gina Gershon), the reigning sequin queen. Nomi’s first stop on her way to the top is an audition where she has to bare her bosom.

Tony (a sleazy Alan Rachins): Ya got something wrong with your nipples?

Nomi: No.

Tony: They’re not sticking up. Stick them up.

Nomi: What?

Tony: Play with them.

Nomi gets the part. Dozens of people of both sexes then fall either in love or lust with her. Her talent with nail polish gets some praise. She admits she used to love eating dog food, and eventually she becomes a star. I’ll let the finale remain a surprise.

Arnold Schwarzenegger drinks a vitamin shake and wonders why he’s in “You Don’t Nomi.””

What You Don’t Nomi’s writer/director/editor/co-producer McHale gets right here, and he gets little wrong, is the incorporation of the films of Verhoeven into the tale of how Showgirls gained a cult status. There are scenes from Elle (2016), The Fourth Man (1983), and Total Recall (1990) cleverly edited into the action along with clips from The Rocky Horror Show (1975), Striptease (1996) with Demi Moore, Forrest Gump (1994) and dozens more.

Nomi tries on a dress. Is this a reference to Orson Welles’ “Lady from Shanghai”?

There is a wit here that the original lacks, along with illuminating looks at film criticism, male egos in Hollywood, America’s attitude toward sex in the cinema, Susan Sontag’s definition of camp, plus a collage of vomit scenes.

“For those who get it, it’s kind of a religion,” insists Peaches Christ, a drag-queen impresario, who puts on a Showgirls spoof in San Francisco that includes lap-dancing.

The film only falters in its section featuring April Kidwell, who has starred in the rather successful Showgirls! The Musical! after appearing in the Saved by the Bell spoof, Bayside! The Musical! Apparently, after suffering both emotional and physical abuse in her own life, the young actress recovered by playing Elizabeth Berkley’s past roles. Kidwell insists that being the only person in a theatre dancing topless and then singing a terrible song about rape have decimated her past agonies. This segment is discomforting for many reasons and belongs possibly in another film.

Yet You Don’t Nomi otherwise never hits a false note. What you have in the end here is a Tiger King for cinephiles.

(RLJE Films has released the documentary You Don’t Nomi this week On Demand and Digital.)

Brandon Judell has published in The Village Voice, The Advocate, and 50 or so other outlets. He is currently a lecturer at The City College of New York.

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