It’s a shame that “You Don’t Nomi,” a new documentary about the failure and reevaluation of Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 pulp film “Showgirls,” doesn’t live up to its truly inspired title. A play on the movie’s enigmatic, beguiling, and totally unhinged protagonist Nomi Malone, played by Elizabeth Berkeley in a career-defining (and -ending) role, the title calls to mind Lesley Gore’s 1963 classic “You Don’t Own Me” — a connection that amuses at first glance, but becomes quite tenuous once you think about it. The same could be said for “You Don’t Nomi.”
For the uninitiated, “Showgirls” follows a young Nomi Malone as she arrives in Las Vegas with dreams of becoming a dancer. Fresh off the success of “Basic Instinct,” Verhoeven attracted top-tier talent of the era like Kyle MacLachlan and Gina Gershon, both of whom thought they were signing onto a grittier, more daring “Basic Instinct.” “Showgirls” was a massive failure; it was critically panned and bombed at the box office, grossing just $37 million worldwide on a production budget of $45 million.
The first feature from film editor Jeffrey McHale, the movie begins by placing “Showgirls” in the context of the rest of Verhoeven’s oeuvre. As one interviewee points out, the provocateur was hailed as an adroit satirist and social commentator as long as he stuck to violence rather than sex, even though his early work was successful on both fronts. Audiences may be surprised to learn that his early Dutch films criticized homophobia (“Spetters”), religion (“The Fourth Man”), and nationalism (“Soldier of Orange”).
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One commentator suggests that, after inflaming Dutch audiences one too many times, Verhoeven was “exiled to Hollywood,” where he would make hits like “Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct,” “Starship Troopers,” and, of course, “Showgirls.”
“You Don’t Nomi” relies heavily on commentary from culture critic Adam Nayman, who visited the subject in his 2014 book “It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls.” Nayman’s observations, though astute and impassioned, color too many of the film’s arguments, and it ends up feeling like Nayman’s movie. McHale even borrows Nayman’s phrase “Masterpiece of Shit” for the movie’s chapter titles, breaking it up into three sections: “Piece of Shit,” “Masterpiece,” and finally “Masterpiece of Shit.”
It also doesn’t help that McHale makes the understandable but ultimately misguided choice to make the talking heads talking voices; he never shows their faces. This allows him to focus on images — which he does aptly — assembling footage of Verhoeven’s work, as well as some particularly choice clips from Berkeley’s “Saved by the Bell” days. (Millennials will chuckle at the satisfying placement of the famous “I’m so excited, I’m so scared” scene). The downside is that it’s hard to keep track of who is speaking. It can be difficult enough to keep documentary subjects straight; never showing their faces doesn’t help matters. What’s more, the disembodied voices offer no insight into what sort of person reveres “Showgirls.” When one male voice admits to having watched “Showgirls” over 100 times, it feels important to know whether he is straight or gay.
McHale, who is gay, also misses the mark when it comes exploring to the movie’s appeal to that demographic. His explanation for why gay audiences love “Showgirls” is a surface-level comparison between Nomi’s journey and that of a typical queer youth: She seeks fame in order to escape her ho-hum beginnings, much like young queer people flock to cities from small towns in order to find community. The queer community gets one more nod by way of San Francisco personality Peaches Christ’s infamous drag “Showgirls” screenings at the Castro Theater, an event so renowned it warranted more screen time.
Instead, the movie spends far more time inexplicably shoehorning in the story of April Kidwell, a theater actress who made a name for herself as Off-Off-Broadway’s premier Elizabeth Berkeley impersonator, starring in “Showgirls! The Musical!” and its companion piece “Bayside! The Musical!” A bizarre digression, it finds McHale going full Verhoeven as he lingers on Kidwell’s healing from sexual trauma through playing Nomi Malone. Certainly, Kidwell’s story is there to illustrate the film’s monumental cult status, but her prominence feels like a hurried attempt to include more women’s voices. (There are only three women critics interviewed, and the most prominent one, Haley Mlotek, doesn’t seem to like the movie very much).
As Mlotek says, “we’re still talking about ‘Showgirls’ because we’re not finished with it yet.” At the end of “You Don’t Nomi,” that remains true.
“You Don’t Nomi” premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival on April 27.