Friday, May 30, 2014

A Ghoul Versus Showgirls (Part 1)

Follow one woman's EPIC QUEST to go from being a full nude dancer to a topless dancer!”

We've got a tough one today, perhaps one of the hardest movies ever to pin down. Showgirls is a rather notorious film, for years it was hailed as one of the worst movies ever made but at the same time has steadily grown a massive cult following that celebrate it as THE “So Bad It's Good” movie. And I'm not kidding when I say MASSIVE, it has gone on to become one of MGM's best selling home video release of all time.  Which means it gets to rub shoulders with Gone With The Wind, Apocalypse Now, Ben-Hur, and... oh geez, Willow?! Okay, so that achievement isn't THAT impressive.

On paper, this film had everything going for it. It was to be directed by Paul Verhoeven, who was MOLTEN HOT at the time as his last three movies had been the smash hits Robocop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct, the films having grossed over $600 million dollars domestically. Which, when adjusted for inflation, is probably like a kazillion dollars, give or take a jillion.

It was written by the highest paid screenwriter of all time, Mr. Joe Eszterhas, who commanded an average of three million dollars per script at the time. While he often fell on the bad side of critics, his stuff was a hit with audiences as he always brought highly provocative and often sexual subject matter to the big screen in ways that had never really been done before in the mainstream.  Verhoeven and Eszterhas had brought down the house with their previous collaboration, Basic Instinct, and everyone was anxiously anticipating what they would do next. Showgirls was conceived as a dark modern take on the classic MGM musicals of eras past, it would be about the horrors strippers face in their lives in what Eszterhas dubbed a “morality tale”.

It went on to bomb, and it bombed HARD. It was the first American film rated NC-17 to get a nationwide release, which surely limited its audience and thus its revenue. It was the first movie I ever snuck into at the theater, as I was too young to see it at the time but I REALLY wanted to see Elizabeth Berkley's nuanced and layered acting on the big screen. Y-yeah, her acting! That's why!  Oddly enough, I snuck in by buying a ticket to the movie Strange Days, which was rated R but the theater had no problem letting me in for that one. Every movie theater in the 1990s: You kids want to see Robocop 2? That'll be eight dollars!”.

So what went wrong? Well, that all depends on who you ask. In a move I can also guarantee was calculated, there are dozens of conflicting reports on the production as well as numerous backtracking statements by the filmmakers themselves. Some say the movie was always meant to be a dark satire, and that all the actors were told about this in advance. Some say the movie was meant to be drop dead serious, but none of the actors believed it and instead hammed it up. There's stories about the actors thinking it was all serious, and then being shocked when they saw the final cut.

Just doing research for this intro, I found no less than seven contradictory articles all with different versions. It just reeks of calculated efforts to give them film a legendary, larger than life aura of mystery about it. I mean, nineteen years later and we're still talking about it, so I'd say it definitely succeeded there.  Grab an ice cube, perk up your nipples and get ready for A Ghoul Versus Showgirls!

The film opens with an over the shoulder shot of a young woman in a black leather jacket STOMPING her way through a truck stop to get to the highway. This woman is very famous if you're a Saved By The Bell fan, it's Elizabeth Berkley, doing the traditional “My Childhood Career Is Over, Time To Show The World What A Grownup I've Become” role that so many child stars subject the world to. Miley Cyrus? Who said Miley Cyrus just now? Why bring her up?

She starts hitchhiking, getting picked up by a charming date rapist looking guy with an Elvis haircut. He seems legit.  Get in that truck already Elizabeth!  He starts flirting with her but she pulls a switchblade on him. She's a really tough woman who don't take no shit, which is so subtlety done I'll probably have to point it out lest you miss it. She then changes the country music playing on his radio to heavy metal, which is just RUDE.

The creep introduces himself as Jeff, and our “hero” introduces herself as Nomi. She wants to go to Las Vegas to become a dancer and star in a REALLY crappy movie. One out of two ain't bad, right?  They arrive in Vegas, Jeff asking if she gambles. This is the first opportunity for the film to drop its gimmick of having every character drop a line that is meant to be an iconic, meaningful quote to make this seem like a much smarter picture than it actually is.

“You got to gamble if you're going to win.”

They park across a casino where he says his uncle works. Nomi plays the slots while Jeff goes to talk to his uncle about getting her a job, and hits the jackpot almost immediately. At least I think that's what happened in this scene, for some reason she's not wearing a bra and her shirt isn't buttoned up.  She goes on to gamble all her winnings away, as she realizes Jeff has been gone for a really long time.  Nomi goes outside, finding his truck is now gone which unfortunately had her suitcase and belongings in it. Well, there goes he chance at ever having a bra in this movie.

She starts YELLING “fuck!” over and over again, throwing a fit and hitting the car next to her while CRYING. The car's owner appears out of nowhere, trying to stop her from denting it. The woman ends up having to grab her and push her back, which for some reason causes Nomi to puke her guts out all over. Almost 20 years later and this is still one of the most inexplicable scenes in movie history. It just comes out of NOWHERE, Nomi hadn't been drinking or anything.

Nomi runs away, but the woman chases her down and ends up pulling her out of the way of a car about to run her over. They look at each other and I SWEAR they're about to kiss but instead hug as Nomi breaks down CRYING.  The woman buys Nomi food, who ungratefully digs into it like a cave woman. The woman tries to talk to her, but she's as responsive as a sullen teen before she starts YELLING again. Because her actions already make no sense whatsoever, the woman offers to let Nomi STAY WITH HER, because who wouldn't want this bundle of joy as a roommate? Nomi asks if she's hitting on her, and this ought to be a hilarious comeback Eszterhas-style!


The woman asks if she's a hooker, and THIS should prompt an epic comeback.


Hmm.  Six weeks later. We join the women as they talk about potato chips in a totally pointless scene that only exists to tease more lesbian action. Nomi follows Still Not Named Woman to her job, where she works as a costume designer for a Vegas dance revue. We get the typical catty dancers who crack mean spirited one liners at each other while throwing in as much background nudity as possible. I'm just disappointed we haven't seen the male gay stereotype yet. Oh wait, there he is!

Nomi watches the show from the balcony as it presents its star, Miss Cristal Connors, played by the “Eternally Stuck In B-movie Hell” Gina Gershon. The show is some kind of strange topless volcano dancers-themed thing, I really don't know. It's built up to be this critically acclaimed thing and just looks REALLY lame. However Nomi is completely enraptured by it, mimicking all of Cristal's movements with her hands.

Afterward they hold a press conference to talk about how wonderful Cristal is, and she's presented with a bouquet of flowers by Zack Carey who is the entertainment director of the hotel the show is held at. He's played by... sigh. This just hurts so bad. He's played by Kyle MacLachlan, a man that I utterly and completely worship for his role as Agent Dale Cooper on my favourite TV show of all time, Twin Peaks.  MacLachlan signed on for this role because of his admiration for the film's creators, believing the movie was going to follow the spirit of their previous dark creations. One has to believe he also saw the writing on the wall like Elizabeth Berkley did and that he was going to be dangerously typecast as his claim to fame role all his life thanks to asshole fanboys like myself, so would do anything to try to shatter that image.

Nomi and The Woman With No Name make puppy dog eyes at Zack because crappy role or not, he's still freaking Kyle MacLachlan.  After the press conference, a stagehand calls out to Molly that Cristal needs her. Molly? Who the hell is Molly? Oh, the Woman With No Name! Well it's only 13 minutes into the movie, I'm going to give them some slack as that's not terribly late to reveal the co-star's name. Molly and Nomi go to see Cristal, who needs her alterations made on her bra. Nomi tears up, as she wishes she had one of those.

It's worth noting at the press conference Cristal talked like a classic Hollywood starlet, but now that the cameras are off she sounds like a backwater hillbilly. And ye Gods, does her accent SUCK. Molly notices a huge arrangement of flowers on her table from “Andrew Carver”, who is a big rock-n-roll star that she's rather taken with.  Molly then remembers Nomi exists, introducing her and mentioning she's a good dancer. Cristal asks where she dances at, Nomi answering a club called the Cheetah. Cristal says this is a nice little club and that Nomi must be very talented to work there.

Ha hah, just kidding! She ridicules Nomi because she's the “Bitchy Star Who Is Above Everyone” character. I didn't even bother to bring the Cliche Counter along for this review because this whole movie is basically a parade of stereotypes. Nomi YELLS at her and STORMS OUT. Molly runs after her, confronting her about embarrassing her in front of Cristal. Nomi YELLS that she's sorry and starts CRYING.  Do you see the trend yet? Every time Nomi needs to express any kind of emotion she just yells it out, which BAFFLES me Zack Snyder hasn't cast her in any of his movies yet.

They go to a club where Nomi dances like she's fighting off invisible ninjas. She catches the eye of one of the bouncers, played by the consummate “Hey It's That Guy!” character actor Glenn Plummer. They dance to David Bowie's “I'm Afraid Of Americans” which is WAY too awesome for this movie, as Plummer tells her she needs lessons on how to dance. I speak for everyone watching this when I say “NO DUH”.

She responds by kneeing him in the dick because she don't take shit from no one. He falls back into another guy at the club, apologizing for bumping into him and offering to buy him a drink. The guy waves his offer off, saying it's fine and goes back to dancing.  Ha hah, just kidding! The guy punches him and the usual bar room brawl ensues, while Nomi watches with an oddly disturbing and perverse smile on her face.

Nomi goes to leave with a gleeful smile on her face, but the other bouncers in the club grab her as they competently realized she started the fight. She ends up in a Vegas holding cell, which has to be THE single most disgusting place in the world. Even I wouldn't eat anyone that came from there.  It turns out Plummer bailed her out because I guess even Molly has her limits for helping sociopathic strangers. Nomi is completely ungrateful towards Plummer, STOMPING OUT of the jail as he runs behind her trying to talk. The writing here is pretty damn funny (not intentionally though, or maybe it was...) so I'm just going to recap it:

“Look, all I did was tell you I'd teach you how to dance.”
“I don't need nobody to teach me to dance.”
“That's because you're a bad ass. You got your arm straight out, saying back off motherfucker.”
“Yeah, you got that down. BACK OFF MOTHERFUCKER!”
“You know what? My head hurts, my dick hurts, and you got me fired from my fucking job.”
“Yeah well, shit happens you know?”
“Shit happens? That's it? That's what I get, fucking wisdom? That's it?”
“Yeah, that's it. You get wisdom.”
“Guess what? You're not just a pain in my head and a pain in my dick, you're also a pain in my ass.”
“Life sucks, you know?”
"Life sucks? Shit happens? Where you get this stuff, off of t-shirts?”

The success of Joe Eszterhas is so fascinating to me. He's almost universally bad with all of his characters talking in the most trite and simplistic way possible, and yet he was paid three times as much as the next writer thanks to how edgy his stories were. He's like the thriller version of Prequel George Lucas, treating the dialogue parts with utter disdain just so he can get through them as quickly as possible so we can get to the lovingly crafted sex parts.

We catch up with Nomi as she heads to work at the Cheetah, which is a strip club if you didn't guess that already. I don't know why Nomi got so mad at Cristal, this place is a fucking dump. We meet the owner of the club, Al, who despite being a rather stoic man seems genuinely interested in the women working for them and offers fatherly advice to them.  Ha hah, just kidding! He's a complete sleeze bag who treats all the strippers like cattle and demands blowjobs from them. He introduces his newest hire, a blonde woman named Hope who is played by the “Princess of Erotic Thrillers” Rena Riffel, who would later go on to write, direct, producer, and star in a SEQUEL to this movie, not even joking.

Outside the club, Cristal and Zack arrive in a limo, fresh off a cocaine binge. They take front row seats just in time to see Nomi take the stage. She does her “star making” dance routine, which includes the iconic shot of her LICKING THE STRIPPER POLE. Sadly the scene where she finds out she now has Hepatitis C was cut from the movie.

Nomi works the floor after her number as we see Plummer enter the club. Cristal buys a private dance from Nomi for Zack while she sits and watches. Plummer also tries to watch but a bouncer catches him and kicks him out.  Nomi goes completely nude to earn that NC-17 rating as she proceeds to give Zack one of the most non-erotic and flat out bizarre lapdances in all of recorded history. She sits down on him and leans all the way back, flopping and flailing around like a fish out of water. I... is this really a thing? Was this supposed to be hot? All I can think is she's going to slip and crack her head open!

The next morning she is awoken by Plummer knocking on her door, as he's shot right into Hardcore Stalker territory. How did he even find out where she lived? Did he follow her all the way home from the club? Why am I asking story questions about SHOWGIRLS? Plummer again repeats his mantra of he really wants to teach her how to dance, but she just YELLS at him and slams the door in his face.  Nomi and Molly have a day out on the town, as we learn Molly hasn't had sex in six months and “her right hand can barely thread a needle”.  Classy.  This scene is only notable because Nomi is dressed in basically an unbuttoned shirt with no bra and a guy walks by her and just starts GAWKING. I bet he was just a bystander they left in the film because that was such a funny reaction.

They go window shopping, Nomi longingly staring at a lovely black dress that she decides to buy. This scene is oddly scored with some very heartwarming music and everyone speaks in soft tones like this is some really emotional and tear jerking moment, but it's really just a Versace ad in disguise.  This is the part, to me at least, where I truly believe this movie WAS meant to be a satire. All that happens here is Nomi buys an overpriced dress, but they play the scene like she just got reunited with her long lost sister or found out her Hep-C test was negative.

This is another famous Eszterhas trademark, you can never quite tell if his movies are being serious or not. Reading reviews of his movies are as enjoyable as watching the movies themselves, EVERYONE gets a different interpretation of what's going on which is undeniably why he got so huge in the 80s and 90s. Was this scene just satire at how vapid the priorities of the superficial are, or was this legit where we're supposed to be happy for Nomi and how well her life is going?

Back at work, Nomi and Hope engage in a girl on girl show that makes any Lars Von Trier movie of your choice look like a Disney film. After the show Nomi is approached by Phil, Zack's assistant. He tells her there's an opening in the chorus line and she should audition.  The audition is ran by a man named Tony, who tells the group of young women he respects them for even making it this far as it takes a lot of talent and dedication to even be picked. Ha hah, just kidding! He's a complete sexist asshole that mocks them for the slightest shallow imperfections like one woman's breasts being too big or another whose ears stick out too far. His assistant is the guy who played the Wig Master in one of the funniest episodes of Seinfeld ever, so at least there's that.

Her narrows down the casting to Nomi and two other women, asking them to take off their tops. They all hesitate, but then he points out it IS a topless show so I begrudgingly have to give him that one. Damn you movie!