A review of the documentary You Don't Nomi needs to begin with a primer on my feelings regarding its subject: Paul Verhoeven's 1995 film Showgirls. It was one of the first movies I reviewed on this website, and I could not have been more excited to see it. Like many people, I hoped the big-budget picture from a major director would usher in the acceptance of the NC-17 rating, thereby encouraging more filmmakers to take advantage of it.
There was an air of excitement on the big day. I had to show ID at the box office, despite easily being old enough to see the picture. A special stamp was put on the ticket stub. A separate usher stood outside the door of the auditorium checking tickets as people entered. When the previews ended, the projector was shut off, and the usher came in to check everyone's ticket a second time before the movie started.
Then the movie ended up being terrible – an overwrought, corny, tasteless-for-no-reason mess destined to bury the NC-17. I walked out angry. You Don't Nomi has me thinking, after twenty-five years, that perhaps I need to give Showgirls a second chance.
Using extensive clips, director Jeffrey McHale brings in a variety of commentators to provide voiceover arguing that the picture is a misunderstood gonzo masterpiece. Among them are critic Adam Nayman and writer David Schmader, whose hosted screenings helped spur the reassessment. They and others pick apart motifs found in Showgirls, such as recurring references to potato chips and fingernails. (I had completely missed that on my first viewing and am now intrigued beyond words.) They debate whether the movie was meant to play as a comedy or a drama. They reveal how it ties into other camp movies, including Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest.
You Don't Nomi additionally examines Showgirls through the prism of Verhoeven's other films. Certain elements found in the movie – from vomiting to rape – recur in the director's body of work. Put in that greater context, the Joe Eszterhas-scripted film feels less like an unfocused dud and more like a well-considered part of a larger whole. McHale underlines that by melding clips from Showgirls with other Verhoeven pictures (RoboCop is seen watching it, Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct searches for star Elizabeth Berkly on a computer, etc.).
Berkly is another much-discussed topic here. The actress, who plays ambitious dancer Nomi Malone, has long been criticized for her performance, which was derided as histrionic. Several of the commentators suggest this critique is unfair – that she was simply going broad at the direction of Verhoeven, as this was the tone he was aiming for. They may have a point that the scorn heaped upon her is undeserved.
No one who actually worked on Showgirls is interviewed here, and that's probably the right choice. The documentary is about how other people perceive the work – what they see in it, how they interpret it, what they think it's saying that isn't immediately apparent. The arguments are compelling enough that I wonder if I misjudged Showgirls. I might not enjoy it more with a second viewing, although I'm fairly certain that I would be more engaged. You Don't Nomi dives deep, and even if a 90-minute running time causes it to become mildly repetitive, there's no doubt it encourages reassessment of its subject.
This is an entertaining example of film as film criticism.
out of four
You Don't Nomi is unrated, but contains clips from the most explicit scenes of Showgirls, so consider it an NC-17. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.