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Review: ‘Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven’

“Watch it with friends. Recount what you saw. You'll need witnesses.”

Before it came out in 1995, the makers of Showgirls felt they were making something grand and spectacular. They felt they were bringing credibility to the NC-17 rating by making a large and earnest film about adult sexuality. Director Paul Verhoeven announced that, since the film was being made for MGM, it was sort of his attempt to make a good old-fashioned showbiz musical. Comparisons to All About Eve were being dropped left and right. Screenwriter and professional sexist ogre Joe Eszterhas was paid $3 million for his screenplay, which ranked as one of the most expensive in Hollywood history. There was a lot of hope in the project.

Then the film was released. It was drubbed by critics. It's weird story about an ambitious stripper, and her sinister machinations to become the star of a high-profile nude art Vegas show, was chuckled at by most viewers, and dismissed by many people. The acting was over the top and strange. The dialogue was unlike any ever heard before (“Man, everybody got AIDS and sh*t!”), and the characters came across as these weird, gyrating Martian women whose personalities would change from scene to scene. Audiences not only rejected the film, but it started to gain momentum as a genuine fiasco. Showgirls became the byword for a high-profile failure. A common phrase I heard was “sure it was bad, but it wasn't as bad as Showgirls.” Every few years we get another one of these.

In the 16 years since 1995, however, Showgirls has amassed something of a cult. Its oddball fiasco elements – at least for some of us – have an operatic appeal. Every choice was so wrong, every story element so weird, every line reading so out there, that, well, Showgirls becomes an immensely entertaining curio for the camp-lover. Many audiences reacted very positively to the over-the-top cattiness and total earnestness of the project. Midnight screenings began growing in big cities, and some people started doing live commentary tracks, explaining to people why Showgirls was an underrated movie classic. There was some irony here to be sure, but, as with most long-lasting movie cults, the infamy couldn't blow up to the levels it did without a genuine sense of affection. I am of the Showgirls cult. I love the film. I love every last campy bit of it. It is mesmerizing.

Well, partly in response to this earnest Showgirls cult, and partly based on a suggestion made by Paul Verhoeven in 1995, actress Rena Riffel, who played the ditzy supporting stripper Penny, has decided to expound on the Showgirls mythos by writing, producing, directing, editing, and starring in her very own dream-like pet project Showgirls 2: Penny's From Heaven. Yes, the film is real. Yes, there were several iterations of Showgirls 2 in production, and this is indeed the one that ultimately finished first. No, it doesn't have a proper distributor yet. Yes it is low budget (people's footsteps and shifting clothes echo throughout scenes). I was lucky enough to attend the red carpet premiere at The Art Theater in Long Beach, CA, where Riffel was in attendance, along with her retinue. It was a small but passionate crowd of Showgirls lovers, catty gay men, and actors all pleased to have finished another project.

The film itself is a daunting and swirling phantasmagoria of storylines, weird back-and-forths, and just as much bizarro character vacillation as its predecessor. It was hard to tell if Riffel was trying to pay homage to the original, or to outright send it up. She has clearly done her homework, though, as this sequel has actors rehashing several of the best lines from the original: “I have a problem with p***y.” “Wait 'til you hear Caesar sing!” “You are a whore, darlin'.” “Brown rice and vegetables.” and even the immortal “Everybody got AIDS and sh*t,” which is re-spoken by a returning Glenn Plummer. Other actors from the original also turn up (Greg Travis, who was the slimy boat-show guy in the original, and Dewey Weber, the guy who picked up Nomi in his truck), but it's unclear if they're playing their original roles or not. The sequel plays like a bizarro fever dream of the original, where dialogue is rejiggered, but is now being spoken by a team of amateurish (but ceaselessly game) actors who range from the weird to the outright grotesque.
 


And then, just when you feel like you have a handle on things, the film will throw a new grotesque at you, and leave you staggered and dazed. For instance, early in the film, our heroine is unexpectedly attacked by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, coated in blood. Watching this woman, in her Marilyn dress, wielding a plastic knife, screaming and staggering about the Topanga Canyon woods where it was clearly filmed, well, it feels like something out of an early John Waters film. In another time, that woman would have been played by Mink Stole. Then the film meanders onward, bloody-minded, through its long series of abstract, fame-related storylines, until we come a the conclusion 2 1/2 hours later. By the time we get to the end, and Penny is standing in the streets of San Francisco (which is clearly Sunset Blvd.) with her would-be lesbian lover/mother figure Katya (Shelley Michelle, looking like a slutty version of Diane Ladd from Wild at Heart), you begin to sense that this entire film has been a series of dream-like short films, all commenting on the nature of fame. In that regard, it would make a good companion piece to David Lynch's Inland Empire.

The story is all over the map. Penny runs away from Vegas to a new life in L.A., where she dreams of starring in a low-budget dance TV program which films from an area of California they call The Seven Sisters. My wife theorized that The Seven Sisters was actually a bizarro cult of some kind, which is why everyone was so obsessive about the status of this low-budget dance TV show. She hooks up with a handsome and gay pimp-being named Godhardt Brandt (Peter Stickles from Shortbus and Evil Bong 3-D: The Wrath of Bong) who alternately romances her and whores her out to a rich Russian. He's also engaged to the one-time prima ballerina Katya, who has a huge blonde hairdo, way too much makeup, enormously fake breast implants and puffed-up lips. She looks the way Jackie Collins will in 20 years. Penny, masquerading as Helga (she's wanted by the police) has a love-hate relationship with both of them, and is often accused of being a whore. The word “whore” is used more often than any other. There is a weird recreation of the Showgirls pool sex scene, this time with two women. It's… uh… I have no words for it.

There's also a subplot involving snuff films, there's an awkward foursome, and not one, but two dancers are injured by their understudies. There's a lot of nudity to be sure, but it's not the least bit sexy.

Keep your eye on Rena Riffel. She's the real anchor of the film. She's the one who has the most fun, and who seems to have the most knowledge of her character. She's the best dancer, and seems to have absorbed the choreography from the first film into her blood. What's more, she looks great. There's something about her ditziness and dumb-blonde act that seems genuine, smart, calculating. Perhaps it's telling that one of the lines of dialogue is something like “Tricking people into thinking you're dumb really makes you intelligent.” Of course that's tempered by some other gems: “I'd rather be a starf***er than a not starf***er,” “You can tell a stripper by her purse and her shoes.” “I learned all about this from the detective class I'm taking.” I was fond of the sequence wherein a dwarf appeared to Penny (!), and implored that she “seek the Black Madonna. She has the answers you seek.” I swear I didn't make that up.

This is certainly one of the more unique films I have seen this year, and will be mentioned in mythic, hushed tomes by the people who manage to catch it. It currently is making unobtrusive rounds in art theaters. It, however, has no actual distribution deal, so you have to keep a close eye just to learn where it's playing. I'm a huge Showgirls fan, and I somehow missed the screening closest to me.

This is nowhere as large or as grand at the 1995 classic (it was made on a shoestring), but it offers other pleasures. To swim around in Riffel's ambitious consciousness makes for a daunting, baffling, and ultimately a disconnected, blissfully dizzying experience. Watch it with friends. Recount what you saw. You'll need witnesses.


CRAVEONLINE RATING: 6.5/10