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"Showgirls": "It Doesn't Suck" Defends the (Nearly) Indefensible

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire April 1, 2014 at 9:54AM

Adam Nayman's new book gives Paul Verhoeven's diasterpiece the scholarly study it deserves.
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Elizabeth Berkeley in "Showgirls"
Elizabeth Berkeley in "Showgirls"

At times, it seems if you wait long enough, every piece of pop cultural crud will be hailed as an unacknowledged masterpiece. As Adam Nayman admits in "It Doesn't Suck," his book-length defense of "Showgirls," which is out today, "Cultists will worship anything." But movies like "The Goonies," "Hook," "Hocus Pocus" and "Clue" -- to name just a few of the variously polished turds that critics have attempted to reclaim in recent years -- rarely have champions as passionate, as articulate and as self-aware as Nayman.

Although she's understandably sick of revisiting the subject, Gina Gershon told me in 2012 that when she signed onto "Showgirls," she was anticipating a movie like director Paul Verhoven's Dutch classics "Spetters" or the "Fourth Man." But when she arrived on the set, and particularly when she started interacting with star Elizabeth Berkeley, making an ill-advised bid for cinematic legitimacy after years on the tween TV show "Saved by the Bell," it was clear the film was headed in a different direction. 

You have to deal with reality in a film, and incorporate it. When I walked onto that set and you see Elizabeth Berkeley, who’s playing the part, and you see what’s going on, I had to shift the way I thought of the film and how it was going to be, or else I’m an idiot. Then I just started having fun.

Like Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers," "Showgirls" is, among other things, a rather devious joke played on its leading actors. There's a clear divide between those, like Gershon and "Troopers'" Neil Patrick Harris, who get that they're in an over-the-top satire, and those who don't. The difference with "Showgirls," or at least one of them, is that writer Joe Ezsterhas is more Berkeley than Gershon.

One counter-argument, as Jeffrey Sconce puts it in "It Doesn't Suck," is that "Showgirls" is "a brilliant savaging of the vapidity of Hollywood's typical narrative machine" -- which is to say less that it doesn't suck than that it sucks on purpose. But Nayman's is a less contorted, bass-ackwards approach, using Verhoven's undeniable technical genius to point out the sophisticated filmmaking in service of an unsophisticated script.

The contrast between the overstatement of the dialogue and the subtlety of the direction mirrors the contrast in the performance styles of Berkeley and Gershon, which is more evident than ever -- and which is the exact same dynamic that's supposed to be playing out between the two characters. Good filmmaking propping up bad screenwriting; a bad actress dragging down a good one. It's all in plain view.

RogerEbert.com has a lengthy excerpt from "It Doesn't Suck," but if you want to be clear that Nayman's making his argument with a straight face, check out the video below of him introducing the film. 


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