The spectacularly trashy Showgirls has the distinction of striving to be everything a lot of people are going to hate it for. Set in the degraded subculture of Las Vegas strip shows, a world of skin nestled within a world of glitzy capitalist-mall kitsch, the movie, which was written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Paul Verhoeven (the team that gave us Basic Instinct), is full of lines that come ripping off the screen like insults from a dirty nightclub comic. ''Come back when you f--- some of this baby fat off!'' growls a piggish producer during an audition for his latest all-naked production. ''I want my nipples to press,'' leers a backstage vamp, ''but I don't want them to look like they're levitatin'!'' My God, has the art of Hollywood screenwriting come to this? Verhoeven, who used to be a good filmmaker, gets right into the nasty peep-show spirit of it all. In Showgirls, he uses his camera like a priapic weapon, thrusting it at the performers' bodies. For all the tawny flesh on display, the atmosphere is one not of sex but of eroticized hostility, with strippers snarling at each other like the vixens in a Russ Meyer film. That said, I'm compelled to add that I've seen many bad movies far less watchable than Showgirls. The film's real subject and lure is the extremity of its own shamelessness.
It's clear from the opening scene that Verhoeven and Eszterhas are going to sail right over the top and stay there. The heroine, Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), a long-limbed blond with the blowsy open mouth of a party doll, gets picked up hitchhiking by a doofus with an Elvis haircut. When he rather mildly comes on to her, she responds with a furiously brandished switchblade. Touchy! Very touchy! Nomi, who obviously has a few problems just look at her wrong and she'll throw a tantrum is on her way to Vegas to escape a mysterious wrecked past. With nothing to survive on but her looks and her will, she falls into the world of exotic dancing, a profession that, in Showgirls, at least, exists on two tiers. There are the anonymous roadside joints like the Cheetah Club, where dancers appear on boxy catwalks and then retreat into the back room to perform lap dances for tips. And there are the ''legitimate'' stage shows at casino hotels choreographed sub-Bob Fosse spectacles in which women in skimpy costumes cavort with male partners before erupting volcanoes and other wonders. (The theme-park paraphernalia is there to make the patrons feel a little less like voyeurs.) Nomi starts out at the Cheetah Club but quickly graduates to the Stardust hotel, where she becomes the claw-baring rival of Cristal (Gina Gershon), the stripper ''goddess'' of Vegas.
In truth, even the most successful strippers regularly appear at venues like the Cheetah (which, in any major city, would be a relatively upscale club). But Eszterhas and Verhoeven aren't interested in creating an honest portrait of the contemporary burlesque life. They inflate the Nomi/Cristal showbiz rivalry into a deliriously overheated TV movie, a schlock All About Eve in fishnets, complete with calculated bits of outrage like a lesbian flirtation (the bisexual Cristal has the hots for Nomi) and a brutally ugly rape scene. Verhoeven, working from Eszterhas' laughably crude script, has reinvented himself as a purveyor of high-style cynical sleaze: ersatz scandal with a leer. His images practically smack their lips for you. Still, there's no denying that Showgirls, with its nudity, its camp obscenities, and its genuinely dirty dancing, goes over the edge into mean, tawdry exhibitionism in a way that a ''salacious'' TV movie never quite can. The film invites the indignation of the sexually correct, but only a prig would call it dull.
As Nomi, Elizabeth Berkley has a predatory sexiness. With her harshly made up cheekbones, Bambi eyes, and smile that's like an explosion of teeth, she's pretty in a hard, synthetic way that works for the picture; it makes her seem less like a movie star than like an actual performer on the erotic-dance circuit. As an actress, Berkley is, to put it mildly, limited. She has exactly two emotions: hot and bothered. Yet she's certainly convincing at those. What makes her a true, leonine presence is the electricity of her anger. ''You burn when you dance,'' someone tells Nomi, and he's right. Doing a writhing lap dance on top of Cristal's hotel-bigwig boyfriend (Kyle MacLachlan), she's a gymnast in heat. When she's on stage, with her razory movements and hell-bent scowl of abandon, we can see how she channels her rage at men into her act, turning it against them by turning them on. Unfortunately, Nomi spends most of the movie throwing fits, and she's never allowed to form a connection with anyone apart from her saintly black roommate (Gina Ravera). That's supposed to be the point she's armored but the result is a movie that's too shallow to get inside the world it's showing us.
The exploitative heart of Showgirls is that Eszterhas and Verhoeven effectively dissolve the line between the way men in the strip world treat women and the way the movie treats them. Most of the male characters are misogynistic louts, and even the few sympathetic ones are borderline ridiculous. There's the Cheetah Club manager (Robert Davi), who gets the campiest line in the movie (I can't quote it here, but it's about an aspect of lap dancing Nomi surely has no nostalgia for), and a choreographer (Glenn Plummer) who keeps pestering Nomi to do ''serious'' dancing, but whose idea of such turns out to be...a nude stage show ripped off from Flashdance. Of course, we're supposed to be on Nomi's side, and to resent the way she's mistreated. But the movie is asking us to get off on it, too. Besides, it's hard to take the heroine of a film like this one very seriously when she keeps making the ''empowering'' declaration that she's a dancer, not a stripper. Is she kidding herself? Or is it the movie that's kidding itself? It must be the latter. Showgirls is a stripper that thinks it's a dancer. C+