In hindsight, director Paul Verhoeven’s brief success in Hollywood appears to have been some glorious accident. Cult classics such as RoboCop, Starship Troopers and Total Recall felt like big-budget blockbusters made by James Cameron’s misanthropic cousin. Yes, they were as thrilling as one could hope for from any sci-fi actioner, but they were also absurd, unapologetically vulgar and distinctly European. Amid the flurry of graphic sex and violence lied a skewering of American excess in all its forms. That stateside audiences mostly devoured his films’ lurid content without grasping the satire is a too-perfect irony.
Jeffrey McHale’s documentary You Don’t Nomi sets its sights on Showgirls, one Verhoeven movie that not only failed to connect with audiences at the time but was the largest box-office bomb of 1995 and critically reviled to the point that it essentially ended the career of actress Elizabeth Berkley (who played the lead role of exotic dancer Nomi Malone). If you’ve heard of Showgirls, it’s probably thanks to its reputation as either one of the worst movies of all time or simply as a full-on, NC-17 extravaganza of female nudity. A quarter-century later, Showgirls has inexplicably endured, even retroactively hailed by many as a subversive masterpiece.
Those who are only passingly familiar with both Showgirls and Verhoeven’s career as a whole need not apply here. In fact, the audience for You Don’t Nomi is likely limited to devoted Verhoevenites. Regardless, if you (like myself) are a member of that crowd, this may be the definitive essay on the movie itself and its place within popular culture. Even if it doesn’t provide any earth-shattering insight, it’s a deftly edited and thoughtful tribute to — as one critic dubs it — “a masterpiece of shit.”
Plenty of retrospective movie documentaries play like a disposable Blu-ray extras — talking heads solely there to give the film a tongue bath, making obvious claims about its cultural impact and relaying well-known anecdotes about the production. Taking a stylistic cue from modern video essays, director McHale relegates the talking heads to voiceovers, letting their commentary play over clips from the film itself as well as other Verhoeven works. The technique demonstrates how much of a piece, thematically and visually, Showgirls is with more acclaimed outings like Basic Instinct and RoboCop. Again, any diehard Showgirls fan already knows this, but to see it communicated so expertly is a treat.
Part of the movie’s relevance stems from the vast array of interpretations it has inspired. Several of the pop-culture experts contrast Showgirls’ astonishing technical craft with its ludicrous screenplay, which calls into question whether Verhoeven was merely doing what he could with a lemon of a script or if his intentions were more ambitious. The takes here paint the film as everything from a stunning visual guide through the history of musicals and a scathing takedown of misogyny to an LGBTQ+ allegory on coming out; indeed, some time is spent on Showgirls’ prominence amongst queer cinema.
Further impressive is McHale’s allowance of both passionate defenders and unswayed detractors within the critical community to have their say. You Don’t Nomi isn’t trying to convince viewers that Showgirls is the greatest movie ever made; chances are that anyone watching this has already formed their own opinion. Rather, it’s grappling with a dilemma with which every film nerd is well-versed — justifying your love for something deeply flawed. The documentary’s entire point is that it’s still a source of debate. When today’s artistic and commercial flops tend to be misguided franchise reboots — the past year alone has brought us Dolittle, a live-action The Lion King and Men in Black: International — such a phenomenon seems all the more valuable.
You Don’t Nomi is now available to rent on VOD services.