Showgirls, directed by Paul Verhoeven, written by Joe Eszterhas and starring former Saved by the Bell star Elizabeth Berkley, is often held up as symbol of mid-90s cockiness and excess, a time when male filmmakers got their satire, sexism and social consciousness confused and tried to have it both ways with movies that could be read as either exploitative or critical of exploitation. You Don’t Nomi, Jeffrey McHale’s provocative new doc named for Berkley’s beleaguered, impulsive, frequently topless character, looks at every possible interpretation of Showgirls, and feels almost dreamlike in its peeling back of layers and stories within stories.
Critics’ mocking of Showgirls, which quickly turned into a contest for who could write the most negative review, neatly predicted the gleeful cancellations of today, in which the pile-ons often feels more hacky than brave. It wasn’t that Verhoeven or Eszterhas deserved defending. But Showgirls felt like the softest of soft targets, and the attacks started to feel more opportunistic than sincere.
You Don’t Nomi examines the second life of the film, thanks to its embrace by connoisseurs of camp. Things get very meta, in a delightfully committed ’90s way, before meta felt played out. At one point, the fictional struggles of Berkley’s Saved by the Bell character are echoed by those of Nomi and of real-life stage actress April Kidwell (pictured), who plays her in a satirical Showgirls stage adaption.
You Don’t Nomi isn’t a comical story of a hated movie finding redemption by joining in on the joke. It treats Showgirls, and Berkley, with a respect and interest missing from the initial reviews. You may be skeptical of that approach — I sure was — but once you adjust to its casino-with-no-clocks fantasy rhythm it becomes fascinating, lurid and empathetic and scholarly all at once.
Eventually we wonder what all those critics were defending when they stood up to Showgirls. It wasn’t feminism, in most cases, since many of the reviews had a decidedly sexist bent. You Don’t Nomi wonders if they rejected the idea that Verhoeven could satirize Hollywood sex as easily as he satirized Hollywood violence in films like Robocop. No one’s saying he succeeded.
You Don’t Nomi is available on-demand June 9. The new trailer for the film is above.