It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls

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<i>It Doesn&#8217;t Suck: </i>Showgirls

If you ever find yourself somehow embroiled with a circle of film geeks discussing 1995’s erotic box office bomb Showgirls, it’s almost guaranteed to play out in the same way. The majority will likely be chuckling or wincing, fondly or distressingly recalling that film’s infamously lurid scenes of sexuality and over-the-top drama. But there’s always that one guy—the “Showgirls isn’t that bad” guy. His or her presence has become something to watch for, something to be expected. And the mere fact that someone is regularly there to continue putting forth that minority opinion lends it a little credibility, as putting it forth does require some backbone. But still: What is it about Showgirls?

That’s the question Adam Nayman attempts to answer with It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, a defense of Showgirls that throws in alongside those occasional armchair critics who have styled the film as a wickedly clever satire of the Hollywood system rather than the titillating romp it appears to be. It’s an ably written, breezy 120 pages that reads a bit like an extended film school essay, providing an entertaining look into the headspace of figures such as Showgirls director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhaus. Where it occasionally struggles is in choosing appropriate arguments to make its point.

At its best, It Doesn’t Suck is actually quite fascinating as a profile of Verhoeven in particular, with probing insight into the transgressive themes of Dutch works such as 1980’s Spetters and the American erotic thriller Basic Instinct. In fact, Nayman’s research into these other films provides his strongest ammunition for proclaiming Showgirls as an intentional satire, because with each demonstrated example of Verhoeven’s cleverness and willingness to flout convention and take criticism upon himself, it’s more believable to conceive that the bitter moral of Showgirls passed over the heads of critics and audiences. Believing this is utterly indispensable to accepting any of the book’s other arguments, which makes it the real starting point in Nayman’s thesis. Everything that follows is based upon the assumption that Verhoeven was a mad genius operating on a level that his own cast and crew didn’t come close to comprehending.

Take star Elizabeth Berkley as the primary example, depicted here as a young actress who is nearly as naïve as her character, Nomi Malone. To make a truly “meta” film about a nascent performer being taken advantage of by the Hollywood machine, Nayman goes so far as to theorize that Verhoeven decided to consciously mirror Nomi Malone’s treatment in Berkley. Citing the director’s previous dishonesty to star Sharon Stone on the set of Basic Instinct, he posits Showgirls as taking the thought one step further: “…it would hardly be out of character for him to expose Berkley on a bigger scale, especially if, as in Basic Instinct, he believed that it was for the good of the film—and especially if that film was intended as a cautionary tale about inexperienced women becoming grist for the showbiz mill.” That’s a fairly damning portrayal of Berkley as a warm, oblivious body being sacrificed for a director’s vision, and equally damning of Verhoeven as a person, if true.

However, the validity of that kind of argument is undermined by many of Nayman’s actual observations on Showgirls the film, which range from the overly obvious to grasping at straws. Chief among the latter is the centralized theory behind the significance of mirrors and “doubling,” which starts out as feasible (in the cases of the mirrors themselves) and gets silly as it becomes all-encompassing. (Nomi eats French fries TWICE!)

Perhaps most frustratingly, the book occasionally suggests that if the reader doesn’t agree, it’s because they’re incapable of seeing the truth or changing their viewpoint, rather than admitting that maybe the argument hasn’t been adequately persuasive. When you write “If the viewer wants to see a ‘piece of shit,’ chances are that he will,” it transfers the burden of convincing from the author to the reader. It’s a defensive strategy, the reverse emperor’s new clothes argument—if you don’t see that the film is brilliant, it’s because you’ve already made up your mind.

Still, for lovers of Showgirls or controversial films in general, It Doesn’t Suck is likely to be a great conversation piece. It facilitates discussions and inevitable arguments about the film, offers good background and contextual information and equips the reader to carry on the argument with his or her own friends, accepting or rejecting as many of Nayman’s arguments as desired. It likely won’t convince many Showgirls detractors, but it may very well convince them that the debate is worth having.

Jim Vorel is a Central Illinois-based entertainment reporter and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.