'Showgirls' takes fun out of nudity

September 22, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Here's a first: An adults-only film that appears to have been written, produced and directed by children. Its own creators shouldn't be allowed to see "Showgirls." It might stunt their growth.

"Showgirls," brandishing its NC-17 like a medal of honor, is about as infantile as it gets; it makes screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' first hit film, "Flashdance," look like "The Brothers Karamazov." It's "Flashdance" for morons.

Nothing in the film is new or surprising. It unspools with the predictability of a parody, but it takes itself too seriously to provide even a whisper of wit. It turns out to be that oldest of staples: the backstage story of deceit and betrayal, about a young woman from the sticks who leaves her sordid past behind. She works her way to stardom, letting nothing get in her way; and not until she gets there does she ask: Is it worth it?

The venue, however, isn't Hollywood or Broadway, but Las Vegas, where "stardom" is defined as being the central pair of breasts in an an overblown, ludicrous tapestry of breasts syncopated to music that is as bad as it is loud, while smoke pots, strobe lights and Moog synthesizers do their thing all around you. It's the ninth circle of show-biz hell, where the Jan Murrays and Pinky Lees of the world go to die. Remember, in Vegas the definition of class act is . . . Siegfried and Roy.

But all that isn't the issue, is it? No, not really. The issue is: Is it hot? And the answer is, yes, I suppose, at least in the abundance of flesh it exposes, rare indeed for a Hollywood film, even in an era of ubiquitous R-ratings. You do get to see parts of women's bodies that you've never seen on a big screen before. Is this an advance for civilization or what?

While it's true that in no other mainstream movie have the women been so totally nude, in a powerful way the movie desexualizes female nudity, something that I'd have thought impossible and certainly not worth doing. It turns out to be more about nakedness than sex. There's so much hostility seething through it that the erotic tension is all but dissipated, save for one mean-spirited sequence in which Elizabeth Berkley does a nasty hokey-pokey for Kyle MacLachlan.

But let's stop goofing around: Let's talk about what you see, what your money buys, what that NC-17 really means. You do see breasts and rear ends, but you knew that. You do see female genitals, but never in any detail. You do see a lot of symbolic writhing, with heavy sexual tonality to it. You never see male frontal nudity, but you do get one shot of MacLachlan's tush, hardly worth standing in line for.

Berkley, a former TV actress, plays a statuesque hitchhiker named Nomi Malone, who blows into Vegas with a 6-inch switchblade and a 60-foot attitude and a body that just won't quit. More important, Nomi's got actual talent: She lives to dance and when she unleashes her moves, her erotic charisma is palpable. That much the movie gets right, as it chronicles Nomi's rise from stripper and lap-dancer to chorus girl to star of the Stardust.

Can Berkley act? It's hard to tell. Her part has been so conceived as a knot of hostility, concealing a heart of hatred, that there's almost no variation in her presence. She's never soft or funny or sad. She starts ticked off and she stays ticked off. She even dances ticked off. All her movements have been choreographed to express maximum hostility. Rather than fluid or gracefully expressive physicality, she's been coached toward violence, with arm movements that are punches and kicks that seem aimed at the back of your neck; her vacant face knitted up into a fist, her pupils glaring so fiercely with black rage they overpower the sequins that form crescents around her eyes.

But hers isn't the least persuasive performance in the film. That honor goes to MacLachlan, as the director of entertainment at the Stardust, a seemingly decent guy who, big surprise, is just as tawdry and deceitful underneath as the town he represents. But what is this guy doing in this movie? With his man-in-the-moon chin and his early Ringo hairdo, he looks like some retro-hippie who's wandered in from the nearest tree-hugging convention. He should be wearing Birkenstocks, not $750 alligator loafers.

Eszterhas' script is a joke. It's fitful, undeveloped, full of false starts and cliches. By Hollywood standards then, it's probably worth $5 million, not the measly $1.5 mil he was paid. They ordered up a rotten script and they got a monstrously awful script! Talk about delivering under pressure!

It takes up and discards plot lines like a high-roller throwing chips about. A brutal rape by a straw-man villain is tossed in late to get some violence into the piece, but it's clearly a desperate gambit. Then there's some nonsense with Glenn Plummer, represented as a "serious" choreographer, who gets eaten alive in the mercenary culture of Vegas; but he's a creep, so who cares? There are backstage jealousies among chorines at the Stardust, who sabotage one another.

The real armature of the story supports a seduction drama as big star Cristal O'Connor (Gina Gershon) attempts to have her way with the succulent Nomi, but far from being any authentic portrayal of lesbianism, this one is strictly a male fantasy of lesbianism as a source of giggly adolescent titillation. Like every other little thing in "Showgirls," it doesn't pay off and peters out.

In fact, that's the bottom line on "Showgirls"; like any peep show, you run out of patience long before you run out of quarters.

'Showgirls'

Starring Elizabeth Berkley and kyle MacLachlan

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Released by United Artists

Rated NC-17

Sun score: *

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