Showgirls (United Artists) is a backstage story with many bare breasts, some pubic hair, some comments on menstruation and some simulated sex. Some of the latter is even meant to be simulated--lap dancing.

The story is by Joe Eszterhas, the hottest of Hollywood hotshot writers, and it couldn't matter less. It's like the libretto of a third-rate nineteenth-century opera: an excuse for arias, only in this case the arias are flesh displays and terrific dancing. A footloose young woman, played by Elizabeth Berkley, hitchhikes to Las Vegas, is quickly robbed and left penniless, and is just as quickly befriended by a young black woman who takes her in. That woman is a costume assistant at a lavish club and introduces Berkley. The latter soon gets a job at a strip club, then through talent and brass, moves to the top-line club where her friend works. Berkley coolly maneuvers her way into the leading role in the club's extravaganza, which brings about (carpentered) complications. The ending is incredible, thus fits the film.

All the gaminess, including some lesbian teasings, seems to have been designed with a slide rule and computer by the director, Paul Verhoeven, a glandular specialist, at so many breasts per minute. What matters much more than the story or the Spicy Stuff is the dancing, the show-biz dancing. It's electric. Exciting. And there's lots of it. It was choreographed by Marguerite Pomerhn-Derricks, who has done ballet and jazz dancing and music videos. She makes all the dancers look so sensational that we wonder how Berkley was picked as best among them.

But Berkley is good. Besides her dancing sizzle, she does what she can with the mechanically viperous character she was given to play. Sarah Bernhardt couldn't have done much more with this robotic part, and couldn't have done the dancing. Worth notice, too, are Gina Ravera as her loyal black friend and Gina Gershon, an Ava Gardner look-alike, as the star whom Berkley replaces. They and the whole film bring us the news that: (a) under the glitz, Las Vegas is a tacky, tricky place; and (b) Las Vegas is a microcosm of American values at their shabbiest. If you don't think you can survive the shock of these insights, be warned.

Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann