If there is a key piece of dialogue to extract from Rena Riffel's sprawling, two-and-a-half-hour, opium-paced Showgirls 2: Penny's From Heaven, it is this:
Jimmy: You're not dumb, you just play dumb.
Penny: Like a possum?
Jimmy: No. A possum plays dead, not dumb.
Funny, stupid and aware that it's both, Showgirls 2 is the cinematic equivalent of playing dumb. At its most basic, this is a movie about how much fun it is to obsess and quote and remember Showgirls, or any enormously ridiculous movie, for that matter. It's commentary under the guise of babble.
Riffel reprises the role she played in Paul Verhoeven's masterpiece of trash, the hopelessly dim Penny. Having been anointed the protagonist for this go round, Penny is en route from Vegas to Hollywood in hopes of appearing on a dance show called Star Dancer that seems to consist of a single, piss poor Solid Gold dance and is maybe not even a show at all because all of its action takes place in a black-box theater.
Riffel, in a Russ Meyer-esque fit of multitasking, wrote, directed, edited and produced this movie. She scatters Showgirls references around like they're beads on a stage. These references include the basic premise, a desperate sense of melodrama, volatile pool sex, replicated choreography, dozens of repeated lines ("Fuck you, fucker!"), a series of appearances from actors who appeared in the first film (Glenn Plummer, Greg Travis, Dewey Webber), brown rice and vegetables and…beads scattered on a stage. (I'm sorry to report that she does not eat Doggy Chow.) Through her journey, Penny meets a count, inadvertently prostitutes, inadvertently kills someone, shacks up with Cristal Connors cognate Katya Vandiolva (played by Shelley Michelle, body double to the stars who famously stood in nude for Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman) and flirts with the world of snuff cinema, all while all carrying with her a sense of status anxiety because of her lack of formal dance training all the while. ("I'm a dancer!" she rages half a dozen times.) It's like a tour de force for someone who doesn't know what French is.
Showgirls 2 is aimed at Showgirls obsessives, and it sometimes plays like a spoof (in a very Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker turn, instead of being told to put ice on her nipples at an audition, Penny is told to put Vaseline on her teeth: "You have such a beautiful smile. You need to keep it lubed up. We wouldn't want cotton mouth to get the best of you on a special day like today."). But if it were only parody, its dream haze wouldn't be worth sitting through. Instead, Showgirls 2 is intent on adding to the conversation with an arsenal of its own cheesy lines. It is shockingly quotable. Feast your eyes:
- Penny, motioning to diamond pendant around her neck: "This is my sister's remains. Her ashes, the carbon, turns into a diamond. It was an option at the morgue. It was: burial, cremation or ashes into a diamond. It's very expensive."
- "The only thing worse than your dancing is your camel toe."
- Katya to Penny during a dance instruction: "Don't be afraid of using your pussy. Come on, it's right there."
- "You're not old. I'm old. I'm like thirty-s…something."
- A Star Dancer on hiring an understudy: "We need someone with class and style who has formal technique training but with some dark secret so we can blackmail her with. So when I'm ready for my comeback, she can be fired out of her contract at a moment's notice."
- "I've managed to make an honest living in a g-string."
- "Women are like bananas. They're sweetest when they're ripe. Right before they shrivel. But you, you are a banana split. With a cherry on top. And nuts."
- "It's kind of difficult to dance with a hard-on."
- Godhardt: "What's your name?" Penny: "Um, I can't remember. Olga. Helga."
- "It's better to be a starfucker than a not-a-starfucker, right?"
- "You have to pick up my purple for me because…I want you to pick it up."
- "Everybody got AIDS and shit. H1N1, all kindsa shit. Swine flu!"
Showgirls 2 is where old camp meets new, where the opulent Hollywood bomb gets an amateur's translation. I talked to Riffel by phone and she told me that the film's budget was around $30,000 (in a Penny-like admission, she explained, "I'm not even sure anymore, ‘cause we just kinda lost track."). It was shot in different places (mostly in Los Angeles) in 30 days over a four-month period in the middle of 2010. The film is riddled with technical glitches in its continuity, sound editing and its actors' readings. Weird intonations and flubbed lines occur regularly.
If pure camp requires unawareness, then Showgirls 2's script alone ensured it wouldn't hit the gold standard – it's more reminiscent of John Waters or Troma in its self-consciousness. But that awareness is actually exponential because Riffel has also embraced the human-error aesthetic that plays a major role the appeal of neo-camp like The Room and Birdemic: Shock and Terror. In the case of those films, sloppiness seems accidental; in Showgirls 2, it's included for effect ("A lot of times I didn't have other takes," Riffel adds). The mishmash of a consistently sharp script and incompetence, the by-any-means-necessary approach to entertainment, reminds me the most of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which was in turn a hilarious satire (penned by Roger Ebert) and a terrific mess (check the way Dolly Read's British accent dips in and out for tea).
Riffel told me that her initial cut was four hours long, full of "very long, pregnant pauses of emotions" from her actors that she then says she went through and cut out (on second reference, she lamented the loss of those "beautiful pauses"). But there are plenty of at least inseminated pauses that remain in, and some of the sheer amazement at Showgirls 2 comes from scenes that last so long, it feels like time has stopped. The pacing may test patience, but it's also a trip: watching Penny and Katya watch bubbles float in the air as they stand topless in a pool is surreal imagery whose duration only enhances its weirdness.
Showgirls 2 was inspired by the adoration the first movie has earned, which Riffel has seen on a firsthand basis while attending screenings. As of now, Showgirls is the last great Hollywood camp classic, where opulence informs its ridiculousness as much as clunkiness. For the past few months, she's been screening her own film in Los Angeles. She says the showings have been well attended and met with appreciation. (It's also available on Amazon and through the film's official site.)
For Riffel, it's been a twisted emotional journey, perhaps not unlike that of Nomi Malone herself. The ridicule Showgirls faced upon theatrical release "was kind of devastating," she told me. She's in regular contact with its director, Paul Verhoeven, whom she initially asked to direct Showgirls 2. He declined but, along with the first movie's executive producers, gave her his blessing to pursue this passion project. "He said it was the most painful, hurtful, negative experience and he would never step foot back in the Showgirls world again."
"A lot of the casting directors would call me in for a big movie after Showgirls was out just to sit there and get mad at me and say, ‘How could you do that, Rena? You should be ashamed of yourself.' They didn't even care if I read my scene for them. Hollywood, it made them mad," Riffel says of the humiliation. She told me that it wasn't until Showgirls hit video and started building its cult that then filled midnight screenings that she understood its worth and hilarity.
"Paul Verhoeven, Joe Eszterhas and Elizabeth [Berkley], they were right," she says, relating her epiphany. "What they did with Showgirls was right."