THE AMAZING PANDER ADVENTURE

The word "tantalize" comes from the Greek myth of Tantalus, who tried to trick the gods into committing cannibalism. The gods apparently regarded this a fairly serious sin on his part, for they devised a horrid punishment for Tantalus in the underworld. He was placed in a pool of water which instantly drained away if he tried to drink any. Just above Tantalus hung fresh fruit, but if he reached for it, a breeze would pick up and blow it out of his grasp.

The private exotic dance, known, in various forms, as the "table dance" or "lap dance," seems to me like a modern, self-imposed version of the punishment of Tantalus. Or, rather, like half of it--you still can't touch the fruit, but you can drink all you want. At five bucks a pop.

Director Atom Egoyan had enough artistic rigor to make Exotica, his recent film about an exotic dancer and her patron, as cold and ultimately depressing as--I would guess--a private dance would be. But this didn't make it a good movie. Showgirls, on the other hand, is patent Hollywood silliness, and this doesn't make it a bad movie.

Actually, Showgirls isn't bad at all, strictly as entertainment. It's a formula show-biz story, about a lap dancer struggling to make it as a big-time Vegas chorus girl. Minus the skin, it could easily have been cranked out by the Warner Bros. mill in 1938. But when a formula project is executed with the skill and gusto that director Paul Verhoeven, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and their cast bring to Showgirls, it can be highly satisfying.

Our heroine is Nomi, played by Elizabeth Berkley, late of the kids' sitcom Saved by the Bell. She's a fetching young woman with the enormous, blank eyes of a blowup doll. Nomi, who has a past, hitchhikes into Vegas, where she is cheated by virtually everyone she meets except her new roomie (Gina Ravera), who has a heart of gold worthy of Joan Blondell.

Nomi goes to work in a strip club run by a sleazeball (who else but Robert Davi), but eventually makes it into the chorus of a glossy strip extravaganza called Goddess, the featured attraction at the Stardust. Here, needless to say, she comes into contact with far richer sleazeballs, and starts clawing her way up the casino strip-show ladder.

An odd, not-quite-defined triangle develops between Nomi, Zack (Kyle MacLachlan), the entertainment director of the casino, and Cristal (Gina Gershon), the star of the show, a twangy-voiced minx of ambiguous sexuality--her interest in Nomi and the guy seems roughly equal. Meanwhile, a poor, out-of-work aspiring dancer and musician (Glenn Plummer), a former Alvin Ailey student, tries to woo Nomi, as well as to convince her that she should pursue serious dance.

Nothing new here, of course (remember Jacqueline Bisset in 1970's The Grasshopper?), but Eszterhas has done some clever things with the familiar material. He writes raucous, playable roles, and he's also good at a kind of thematic ass-covering that creates the illusion of human depth. Davi's strip-joint heavy is given a flash of tenderness; the Alvin Ailey purist isn't allowed to be too pure.

The cast is capable. Berkley is irritatingly overintense at first, but she relaxes into the part as the film goes on. She seems like a very limited actress, with a thin, sugary, rather inexpressive voice, but she has the energy for this role, and she can dance. MacLachlan makes an agreeable sleaze, and Gershon, who has lips that Wile E. Coyote could plummet from, is a kick as the sneering, polymorphously perverse Cristal.

There are also good small performances by Lin Tucci as the raunchy impresaria of the strip joint--who struts around telling blue jokes that date back to Sophie Tucker--and Alan Rachins as the casino show's brash, dreadfully toupeed producer.

Showgirls is being marketed as high-octane erotica. It's high-octane, certainly. Verhoeven sets an angry, headlong pace, and the choreographer, Marguerite Pomerhn-Derricks, stages the dance numbers the same way. The film flies along, and even at more than two hours, there's not a dull moment. Yet this revved-up, bitchy tone pushes the film way over the edge of sobriety into the realm of kitsch--without the frequent, probative nudity, Showgirls might be mistaken for a drag show.

The sex is no more than a notch or two more graphic than usual, and there isn't a great deal of it. The big set-piece sex sequences, like Nomi lap-dancing for Zack while Cristal looks on longingly, or Nomi and Zack churning up the water in a swimming pool, are played with such humorless ferocity that they're as likely to inspire giggles as arousal.

In spite of this, Showgirls is rated NC-17. Eszterhas, who also penned Verhoeven's instant camp classic Basic Instinct, has been quoted as saying that teens should use fake ID, if necessary, to see the picture for its message.

Oh, I concur. Thank heaven for artists as courageous and socially committed as Eszterhas. Without his fearlessness, the searing truth that Vegas is full of sleaze and women are exploited might still be a secret. Besides, kids might actually take Showgirls seriously. The sex is mild compared to what they could see any week on premium cable, and the old-movie clichās will be new to them.

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