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You Don't Nomi
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Turns Out It Doesn't Suck"
3 stars

When Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls” detonated in theaters a quarter-century ago, it was considered to be an epic study in campy sleaze that brought new meaning to the word “overwrought”—and this was from the few brave souls at the time who dared to admit that they liked it on some level. Most, however, dismissed it as vile, sexist trash that could be appreciated only as a supremely gonzo example of the kind of movie that is so outrageously awful that it can only be considered as the type of film that is so awful in so many ways that its sheer badness exerts a certain grandeur. However, what if “Showgirls” is not merely an exercise in camp excess but is actually a smartly made and deliberately provocative work that continues to challenge viewers expecting some kind of brainless exercise in gratuitous T&A?

That is the premise of “You Don’t Nomi,” a new documentary from Jeffrey McHale that attempts to reframe the discussion of the film from its long-standing position as a Hollywood punchline to something akin to a work of art (or as close to a work of art as a movie can get that features wall-to-wall nudity, monkey poop and Robert Davi). Instead of providing a straightforward chronicle of the film’s making and reception as seen through the eyes of those who took part and who were willing to go public with their stories, the film brings together an array of critics, scholars, fans and even a poet to talk about their fascination with “Showgirls” and what it has meant to them over time. One of the key points of debate is whether the film was originally intended to be a straightforward drama that simply went over the top into absurdity or, as Verhoevem has attempted to claim in recent years, that it was always meant to be a deliberately outrageous goof that was meant to be laughed at all along.

As someone who has always been an admirer of the film and not just as camp—to these eyes, it is a corrosive examination of the concept of sexual exploitation as entertainment in which Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas elected to take many of the elements of their previous hit, “Basic Instinct,” and force audiences to confront them directly instead of seeing them slicked up within the framework of a conventional Hitchcock-style thriller—I have to admit that I am of two minds in regard to “You Don’t Nomi.” On the one hand, I do appreciate the idea of taking a serious look at the film, especially in the context of the rest of Verhoeven’s distinctive filmography, and the conversation with the young woman who has used the film and her work in the Nomi role in a stage spoof to help her process and work through her own real life sexual assault is undeniably affecting. The problem is that people have been reclaiming the film for so long—within a year or so of its release, it was being championed by numerous critics and esteemed filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, Jacques Rivette and Quentin Tarantino—that for most fans (who are pretty much the target audience), a lot of this is going to seem like old news. Also, some of the theories trotted out to prove the film’s serious intentions are less than inspiring—there is much talk about the symbolic use of mirrors even though that concept is so overdone in the film that it almost feels as if Verhoeven and Eszterhas deployed it simply as a joke—and while the attempts to place it within the context of Verhoeven’s entire filmography is a smart and valuable concept, the decision to illustrate it by bringing in clips from his other projects to literally interact with “Showgirls” via creative editing is a gimmick that grows tiresome after a while.

For those who only know “Showgirls” as a smutty big-screen joke, “You Don’t Nomi” will serve as a decent enough introduction to alternate ways of looking at it as something else. Those viewers who are members of its growing fan base may appreciate it as well on some basic level—especially towards the end when we see how co-stars Elizabeth Berkley (whose singular performance as Nomi, someone striving to create a larger-than-life image of herself, has always been vastly underrated, even by those who like the film otherwise) and Kyle McLachlan lived through and came to terms with the entire experience—as a celebration of a unique movie made by people on their exact same wavelength. It is worth a look, I suppose, but i suspect that most people watching it will come away from it talking about the movie that inspired it instead of the movie they just saw.

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originally posted: 06/10/20 02:32:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 series, click here.
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