Upon arriving in Hollywood after a run of provocative Dutch thrillers (The 4th Man, Soldier Of Orange), director Paul Verhoeven quickly established himself as a commercial saboteur, known for slipping acrid social commentary into big-budget spectacle. Movies like RoboCop, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers can be appreciated for their surface violence and excess, but they all possess fascinating layers of subtext about greed, power, exploitation, and other ignoble human pursuits. Like any good satirist, Verhoeven never betrays his intentions with so much as a wink, which has led some to either question those intentions or simply refuse to give him the benefit of the doubt. Never was this more evident than in the torrent of ridicule that greeted his 1995 magnum opus Showgirls, an infamous bomb that reconfigured the naïve story of A Star Is Born into a cynically perverse assessment of the American Dream. As always, the question remains: Was Verhoeven in on the joke?
Based on the new Showgirls "V.I.P. Edition" DVD, MGM couldn't care less what Verhoeven thinks, especially now that the film has been resurrected as camp. It's a shame that Verhoeven, who has recorded some of the most entertaining commentary tracks around, wasn't invited to defend his vision against the drinking games, lap-dance tutorials, and Rocky Horror play-by-play on the disc. But taken in the right spirit, the annotated commentary by Showgirls aficionado David Schmader is irresistibly good-natured and funny, as he marvels at a film with such "density of failure" that he frequently shudders with delight.
The end result of what Schmader calls "talented people making the worst possible decision at every moment," Showgirls features a notoriously brittle turn by Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi, a wild-eyed ingénue who takes the Las Vegas exotic-dance scene by storm. (Schmader: "She has two emotions: staring and kicking.") After logging time at a seedy strip joint, Berkley catches her big break, but runs into a sleazy cast of characters, including slickster entertainment director Kyle MacLachlan and the show's catty star, Gina Gershon. How does Berkley hold on to her integrity in such a den of vice? Listen closely, and it's possible to hear Verhoeven laughing as she tries.
The DVD box comes with numerous party accessories—including shot glasses, a deck of cards, and a pin-the-pasties-on-the-showgirl game—but Schmader's commentary stands out as the only enduring highlight. Some of his remarks sound like Mystery Science Theater 3000 throwaways ("Don't do it, Nomi. The boat show is a rape-atorium"), but others are wonderfully particular, like the exchange between Berkley and Gershon that Schmader calls "brain-dead Harold Pinter." ("The subtext is staggering until you notice there is no subtext.") In light of Verhoeven's career, Showgirls seems destined for serious critical revival, but it still feels good to laugh about it for the time being.