YOU DON’T NOMI (2019)
Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995) was met with near universal derision. You Don't Nomi traces the film's redemptive journey from notorious flop to cult classic, and maybe even masterpiece.
Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) was mocked by filmgoers and panned by critics, yet 25 years later his R-rated pulp romp is revered by the gay community and frequently discussed. You Don’t Nomi looks to explore why a movie once so hated became a cult classic that inspired drag shows, off-Broadway musicals, and university dissertations.
Showgirls starred Saved By the Bell’s Elizabeth Berkley (in a career-destroying role) as Nomi, a fresh-faced dancer chasing her dreams in Las Vegas. Nomi arouses the interest of dancer Cristal Connors (a deliciously camp Gina Gershon), who whisks her from a seedy strip club to performing in her naked stage show extravaganza… only to slowly sabotage her career.
Directed by the Dutch filmmaker responsible for blockbusters like RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls was a career disappointment after only grossing $37M on a $45M budget. It was the first mainstream erotic film since Caligua (1979) but was widely panned for being tacky, vulgar, and plain unsexy.
Jeffrey McHale’s debut documentary examines how Verhoeven managed to make a film as professionally damaging as Showgirls, examining the misogyny and vulgarity behind his creative choices and why it’s now become a cult favourite.
Using montages from Showgirls and other so-bad-it’s-good movies, supported by soundbites from critics, fans, and commentators, You Don’t Nomi makes a good case for why this flop should be reappraised. McHale refuses to fall back on dull anecdotes and self-indulgent talking heads, but rather uses Verhoeven’s body of work for points of reference.
You Don’t Nomi starts by contextualising Showgirls in Verhoeven’s varied career. This wasn’t the first time the Dutchman dealt with misogyny, capitalism, and sexual assault. It also makes a good case that Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas knew exactly what they were making after their unexpected success with the envelope-pushing Basic Instinct.
This documentary excels thanks to an excellent choice of commentators, including Canadian critic Adam Nayman (author of the book It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls), poet Jeff Conway (who published a book of sestinas based on the film), and drag performer Peaches Christ (whose Showgirls events regularly sell out San Francisco’s Castro Theatre).
However, the film slightly dips towards the end by spending too much time on theatre actress April Kidwell’s story; who found fame playing Elizabeth Berkley in the off-off-Broadway show Showgirls! The Musical! and its companion piece Bayside! The Musical! Kidwell tells a painfully personal story about a past sexual assault and how playing Nomi helped her to heal.
Although her story’s used to illustrate how a film perceived as vulgar and misogynist can help female pain, it feels tangential. The lack of women involved is also noticeable as only three female critics are interviewed. The lesbian community is entirely forgotten once the documentary starts to focus on the gay community, too. The absence of Berkley and Gershon giving new interviews is also a terrible shame, as everyone actually involved making Showgirls only appears via archival footage.
McHale’s smart in not falling down on either side of the argument surrounding Showgirls, giving equal time to both negative and positive opinions. Although it’s clear this documentary is made by a fan who enjoys the film despite its faults, the moral indignation is shown with a raised eyebrow and it doesn’t whitewash Showgirls’ problematic plot and sexism. Cineastes will also appreciate the breaking down of themes and symbols (mirrors, nails), and notorious scenes like the one about ‘doggy chow‘. If you’ve never seen Showgirls, these deconstructions will make you want to.
There is a slight disconnect with You Don’t Nomi, however. It often feels like three or four documentaries squished together, never lingering long enough on a single subject to do it justice. While it touches on Paul Verhoeven’s questionable behaviour on set, the film’s terrible reception, and Berkley’s ruined reputation, it never goes deep enough.
You Don’t Nomi is unlikely to convert naysayers, but it reminds those who love it of why. And for those who will never understand the passion surrounding Showgirls? Well, most will hopefully come away appreciating how this documentary explains why such a bad film is so irresistible for some.
USA | 2019 | 92 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Jeffrey McHale.
starring: Joshua Grannell & April Kidwell.