Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) is hitching to Las Vegas, but she could have chosen a better ride than the man who picks her up, so sleazy that she has to pull her flick knife on him to ensure he does as she says. He takes her to the big city all right, and mellowing he tells her that his uncle has a job opportunity for her because her big dream is to become a dancer there. But as he leaves her to play the slot machines, she quickly realises that he has actually abandoned her and stolen her suitcase into the bargain - Nomi is furious until she meets someone who can offer her a place to stay. Will Vegas be all this bad?
Director Paul Verhoeven said he thought he was making a version of the traditional "putting on a show" musical; the result, however, became the biggest laughing stock of nineties cinema. Its attempts at steaminess made those plentiful, straight to video "erotic thrillers" that Verhoeven's Basic Instinct inspired look sophisticated by comparison, with every scene risibly overheated. On the plus side, Showgirls certainly had a campy appeal that swiftly offered it a cult following among bad movie fans who couldn't believe their luck: a showbiz story that wallowed in the sparkly degradation of those who claw their way to the top of their profession, a Valley of the Dolls for the jaded turn of the millennium.
Mostly this was due to screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' conviction that characters in adult (as opposed to porno, of course) films should be incredibly aggressive - hence the constant, ludicrous hard-boiled dialogue ("Must be weird not having anyone come on you" is one of the more tender lines) and activity that suggests most people in this were either headed for decades of therapy, rehab or prison. The attitude to humanity in this is so sour that it seems to have been conceived by those thoroughly turned off by the mere concept of entertainers as none of them are doing it for the pleasure of others, they're wholly self-centred and will walk over just about anybody to get what they want.
There's a lot of meandering set up in Showgirls as Nomi starts off in a strip club, but is noticed by the big star at the Stardust nightclub, Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) who wants to either get inside her knickers or give her a major opportunity, if those two are not mutually exclusive. Trouble is, Cristal has already pissed off our anti-heroine and so a battle of wills ensues between them over the course of the running time where Nomi tries to resist the cesspool that is the underbelly of this glitzy world. There is so much of the brittle bitchiness that you can see why many considered this a comedy, and it was one of the few examples of true camp to arrive after the early nineties that was not tainted by the fug of self-consciousness that afflicted so much would-be moneymaking trash.
Its main problem is that the story doesn't really start until the last half hour, and if, by then, the nudity and swearing haven't entertained you, forget it, as Berkley spends what looked like three quarters of the movie topless, and almost all the other actresses here were obliged to show themselves off in their scenes as well. There was no shortage of memorable sequences, such as the swimming pool sex that had many who saw it falling about laughing, but while such mirth was undoubtedly there, it was hard to shake that hollow feeling. Perhaps Showgirls is essentially a sex film that sets out to shock only the most conservative audiences - no one else will be able to take it seriously, and it didn't do many of the actors any favours, with Berkley left to founder as her profile simultaneously went ballistic and plummeted. Showgirls was not only stuck in bitter disillusionment for the moviemakers, it wanted to leave the audience in the same position. Music by David A. Stewart.
Verhoeven's sharp sense of humour tempers his over-the-top style, but he frequently sails too close to being ridiculous for many to take him seriously. The war drama Black Book, filmed in his native Holland, raised his standing once more, and his black comedy thriller Elle won great acclaim for star Isabelle Huppert.