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Verhoeven's lurid Showgirls may only titillate MPAA


Directed by Paul Verhoeven.

Written by Joe Eszterhas.

Starring Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan, and Gina Gershon.

Sony Cheri.

By Scott Deskin

Paul Verhoeven is a master of cinematic exploitation. The Dutch-born director seems to run into controversy with the Motion Picture Association of America every time he releases a new film: All of his releases in the United States were taken back to the editing room to be recut for an R rating. The MPAA ratings board has good reason to be wary of his films, which are filled to capacity with graphic (and sometimes cartoonish) depictions of sex and violence.

That's not to say that his films are all trash. Verhoeven knows the value of a risqu scene or a shock-filled gorefest, especially when the subject matter is laced with lots of tongue-in-cheek humor. In Robocop, Verhoeven took an imaginative science-fiction plot and infused a no-holds-barred visual style that didn't bother to avoid social roadblocks, but simply blew them away. Total Recall stretched the sci-fi/fantasy envelope even further, and enabled Verhoeven to use even more money to bring his shocking visions to life. However, Arnold Schwarzenegger's lead performance was less expressive than Peter Weller's robot in Robocop, and pushed the mutant aesthetic (radiation-deformed victims on a Martian colony) to unpleasant extremes.

Verhoeven's most notorious film, Basic Instinct, was a taut, stylish, and grossly-manipulative monstrosity of a neo-noir crime flick. Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone combined for one of the least charismatic couples in recent memory, and the script opted for cheap thrills and unbelievable twists of fate that played like bad Brian DePalma. What's worse, Verhoeven seemed to finally succumb to the pitfalls of genre-filmmaking: The problem with testing the audience's tolerance for sex and violence each time out is that you run the risk of alienating your audience entirely. Yet, like Verhoeven's previous two films, it also made loads of money.

Now he offers the movie-going public Showgirls, a reputed look inside the seedy world of Las Vegas show dancing. The most inspired thing about the film is casting kid-sitcom refugee Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi, a young woman with a sketchy past who looks to make it big in Vegas as a dancer. It's not long before she's stranded in Sin City without knowing anyone. At this point, a stranger named Molly (Gina Ravera) takes her in: We learn later on, conveniently, that she's a dress designer for dancers at the Stardust hotel.

Before she makes her big break, Nomi must earn her keep by working as an erotic dancer at topless bar. With Molly's help, it's not long before she gets noticed by some of the folks at the Stardust: both star dancer Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) and entertainment director Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan) have an interest in Nomi that goes beyond professional boundaries. Thus, Nomi must endure some embarrassing trials in her quest to become a showgirl at the Stardust by fighting off Cristal's personal scorn while courting Zack's confidence so she may climb the entertainment ladder.

There are practically no likeable characters in Showgirls. Everyone has crude sexual or ambitious motives at heart. Essentially, the plot is a modern rewrite of All About Eve, another film in which a young woman schemes her way to the top as she fixes her eyes on the role of an aging theater actress. But Showgirls (written by Basic Instinct's Joe Eszterhas) doesn't merit comparison to that film in any other way. Aside from unattractive characters and garish production design, the dialogue is laughably awful. In the film's one truly sentimental moment, Nomi's strip club manager (Robert Davi) comes to the Stardust to congratulate her on her success, but also to convey his feelings of loss over one of his best employees. When he says, "It must be weird not having somebody come all over you" (coincidentally, the best one-liner in the film), you know that Eszterhas is plumbing new depths to endear his characters to the audience.

Verhoeven has repeatedly justified the extremes of violence in his filmmaking, pointing to his childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II as his artistic impetus. Showgirls is supposedly his tribute to Hollywood musicals, and its abundance of dance numbers are all executed with flash and style - as much as the sexual explicit nature of the situations will allow, that is. But this rags-to-riches story has been done better many times before. An absence of cultural relevance mars the film and could actually have one yearning for an encore viewing of Saturday Night Fever instead.

Verhoeven's Showgirls is unlikely to cause a sustained frenzy of interest in show dancing, or even lap dancing for that matter. Of course, there will be initial box office interest from those intrigued with the director, the NC-17 rating, or the deflowered ex-star of Saved by the Bell herself. But soft-core pornography and banal storytelling don't make a great film. I have a few words for Verhoeven: Tantalize and shock us if you must, but for your sake, don't bore us to death.