Dir: Paul Verhoeven
Star: Elizabeth Berkeley, Gina Gershon, Kyle McLachlan, Gina Ravera

Back in TC18/19, I mounted a spirited defense of this when it originally came out, arguing that if you looked past the copious nipples, you'd see that it was about power, not sex, and saying I "think history will be kind to it." I'm pleased to report that this has indeed been somewhat the case: while a box-office flop, it has gone on to major success in the home market, becoming one of MGM's best-selling titles on DVD. After last time's review of Verhoeven's Black Book, it seemed an appropriate time to blow the dust off, after fifteen years, and see what I think now. The answer is, pretty much the same. It remains a glorious, lurid exercise in excess, to some extent an unofficial remake of All About Eve. But it's also a savage critique of the illusion which is Las Vegas, and how it destroys those it infects [having been to the place a lot more since the original review, I can testify first-hand how two days is enough], because deceit is the only route to success. It's probably something only an outsider like Verhoeven could do, and parallels the same twisted view of American culture seen in Robocop.

There's hardly an honest or likeable character in this movie: even "heroine" Nomi Malone (Malone) is intent on letting nothing get between her (damaged goods, as she is) and fame. The show star she is trying to replace, Cristal Connors (Gershon), is no better; nor casino entertainment director Zack Carey (McLachlan). The only decent person is Molly Abrams (Rivera), who befriends Malone after her arrival, providing her with a place to stay and a moral compass. Her reward for this? Gang-rape. The best you can hope for is someone like the show director, who introduces himself as a prick. Hey, at least he's honest. It's an extraordinarily fucked-up universe: the irony is that Nomi, who fits in perfectly, heads straight for it, which gives you some idea what the rest of her life is like. Selling this as a sexy movie to the American public - the very people who buy into the dream it mercilessly shreds - was pretty much guaranteeing failure, on a "mob with torches" level. No wonder Verhoeven turned up at the Razzies to accept the Worst Film award in person, his way of saying, "The joke's on you." Just as Nomi rejects popular acclaim at its height, so Verhoeven embraced mass rejection at its most spectacular.

In my original piece, I said, "I don't know where the $40m budget went," but here too, the passage of time has been kind to it, with abominations like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry costing more than twice as much. Even without any major stars, the re-creation of massive Las Vegas show-stoppers can't have been cheap. Hell, even the all-but forgotten Striptease, which came out less than a year later, cost ten million more. Where did that go? [Rhetorical question...] Generally, the other aspects I didn't appreciate at that point also seem less grating: characters which seemed superfluous now serve a purpose, and the length no longer seems as much an issue as it did. It feels like a Russ Meyer movie, with oversexed characters rampaging round a surreal landscape spitting wholly artificial lines at each other. If only Verhoeven hadn't blotted his copy-book with the tedious Hollow Man, this would have been a fitting "Vaarwel, en dank u voor al geld," from him to Hollywood.

And dammit, Gina Gershon is brilliant in this, another one of writer Joe Eszterhas's predatory bisexuals. She out-Sharon's Stone, spitting insults at Nomi, and yanking her around like a poorly-trained puppy, while fully realizing that they are basically the same. That relationship is at the heart of what is basically a melodrama, a populist genre despised by critics for centuries, in which the good girl is ensnared by evil, only to escape at the last minute. Except that here, Nomi actively seeks out and embraces the evil. And yet, critics like Anthony Lane could still say, "There is not a whisper of satire in this movie." Rarely has a movie been so completely misunderstood. Even John Waters, who really should know better, claimed Verhoeven and Eszterhas "don't appear to be in on the joke." They definitely were, the former likely much more so - although in mitigation, it's probably not the same joke at which Waters was laughing... Still, that's one of the joys of the film: you can take entertainment from it on multiple levels. Though if you ignore the satirical intent, you will be doing it a huge disservice.

[July 2009]


See also... [Index] [Next] [Previous] [TC Home Page]