Just like a chem lab, Hollywood has always been an industry based on formulas. Barbara Stanwyck is a universal catalyst. Julia Roberts plus class tension is a philosopher's stone, turning leaden concepts into gold. Up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom describe both quarks and key elements in ensemble comedies. And as the craft's grown older, studios, writers, and directors have convinced themselves they can pull off increasingly sophisticated formulas with the right combination of hot actors and stock scenarios. As movies like Burlesque suggest, Hollywood even thinks it can figure out how to consciously produce that most serendipitous of genres: the movie that's so bad, it's good.
I realized, as friends of mine trickled off to see Burlesque, that I'd never seen the movie that perhaps most embodies the so-bad-it's-good category: Showgirls. And so I settled down on a Friday night to subject myself to the Razzie-winning, Elizabeth Berkley-starring 1995 film about Vegas strippers-cum-burlesque dancers.
Most movies that are so bad that they flip the definition of goodness are completely unaware of what they're doing, and on those grounds, Showgirls undoubtedly qualifies. But that lack of awareness also kind of needs to be funny. And Showgirls may be too sad, both as an artistic failure and in the places where it succeeds, to be any fun.
Take flicks like the 2002 remake of Rollerball, or Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers. The first is based on the idea that the world of 2005 is obsessed with a violent form of roller derby; the second about a world that's embraced a rather cheerful fascism in the face of alien invasion. Both movies have their silly exploitative excesses, be it the idea that Rebecca Romijn works out topless or that an integrated military would adopt co-ed showers. Both star lunky actors no one has to feel particularly guilty about laughing at, Chris Klein and Casper Van Dien, respectively. And both movies have the redemptive delights of actors who are entirely aware of what's going on around them in Jean Reno and a pre-Harold and Kumar Neil Patrick Harris.
Showgirls certainly has that last element, Kyle McLachlan deploying his David Lynch-honed sexual creepiness. But it's hard to feel good about laughing at Berkley's infamous performance as Nomi Malone. The character is almost outrageously unpleasant and angry in a hair-trigger, entirely irrational fashion. And it's hard to feel a lot of schadenfreude when she embarrasses herself by mispronouncing Versace or asks McLachlan's predatory character what an MBA is. Laughing at her is like laughing at a damaged animal. Her character doesn't have the capacity to be in on the joke, or the advantages to shrug off laughter and move beyond it.
The parts of the movie that are meant to be funny have more integrity than anything else in it. Gina Gershon's aggressive, bisexual showgirl may be an irritant to Nomi, and have a lot of really dreadful dialogue. But she's also honest about what she wants, and about the false distinctions between artistic stripping and prostitution. Cristal's just as vapid as everyone else in the movie, and she retires on an work-injury settlement, surrounded by a diva-worthy ocean of flowers.
Maybe this makes me a scold, but it's also hard to just ignore the subject matter in Showgirls the way you can in Rollerball or Starship Troopers. It's not that dangerous sports or questions of citizenship and wise use of the military aren't worth serious considerations. But Rollerball bears as much resemblance to a serious discussion about head trauma and football as Twilight does to The Second Sex: it's just an excuse for rollerblades and silly eye makeup and Eurotrash excess. In Showgirls, on the other hand, the sexual harassment actually feels pretty real, and a rape scene, no matter how badly choreographed, is still ugly and violent. It may be an excuse for a lot of leather, lingerie, and faux eroticism, but misogyny is still at the core of the movie, and what little, awkward fun's to be had from the movie's other missteps doesn't outweigh it.
"I just hope that I can be as good as the show," Nomi says after her first—and only—moment as the top girl in Vegas. She basically is. It's just that she's not enjoying Vegas, and she's not bad enough for me to enjoy her.