Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Just for Fun: Andrew Sarris on the Same Movie, From 1998 in the New York Observer

Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco is the promised final installment of the director's trilogy dealing with the dating and mating habits of the Ivy League not-so-smart set. Most of the characters have come from the right families and gone to the right schools. Having grown up in the 40's as a nerdy wallflower at post-basketball skirt-twirling dances at John Adams High School in Queens, I feel as comfortable in and knowledgeable about Mr. Stillman's world as I would be in the riot-torn streets of Jakarta.

Still, I did like Mr. Stillman's Metropolitan . At a time when other movies were proudly grungy and sweaty, I gave him points for confronting his own clueless social class with a dash of irony that was neither censorious nor condescending. When he accepted the screenwriting award from the New York Film Critics Circle, he jokingly explained that his characters were captured on film always after, but never during, the big dances of Manhattan's preppy holiday deb season, simply because his shoestring budget made it impossible to purchase the rights to the music.

Now with $8 million in the kitty for The Last Days of Disco , Mr. Stillman has loaded the soundtrack with what he considers the musical sounds of the very early 1980's when the disco craze was supposedly on its last legs, with songs by Chic, Blondie, Evelyn (Champagne) King, the O'Jays and Carol Douglas. I'll have to take Mr. Stillman's word on the music and the sociology of the club scene in that period. My impression from the gossip columns was one of more sleaze, drugs and hoodlumism than one can discern from Mr. Stillman's crisscrossing yuppie romances, with unusually if not excessively articulate characters descended in a straight and non-four-letter-word line from Metropolitan in 1990 and Barcelona in 1994.

Not that I mind Mr. Stillman's stylized gentility and gentlemanliness in this potentially sordid context. He has earned the right to put whatever gloss he wants on this scene because of an anachronistic charm and audacity in his sensibility that enables his innocent goldfish to swim safely past the urban sharks hovering in the vicinity. One can quibble over the plausibility of much of the crackpot dialogue, but why bother when Mr. Stillman generates so much fun out of the spectacle of young people cavorting on the crowded dance floor with mindless lyricism.

Chloe Sevigny as Alice and Kate Beckinsale as Charlotte occupy center stage as two upscale Hampshire College graduates with downscale jobs as editorial assistants, forcing them to share a Yorkville railroad apartment with Tara Subkoff's Holly. Alice and Charlotte are thus introduced satirically as a predatory team of guy-hunters without a decent domicile or a well-paying job. They wouldn't be in Manhattan at all if it were not for the largesse of their well-to-do parents.

Alice and Charlotte are far from bosom buddies, however. Alice has had bad luck with boyfriends in college, and even worse luck with Charlotte as her condescendingly superior girlfriend. People around me at the screening were laughing at Charlotte's teasing of Alice for not knowing how to approach the right men, or give the wrong ones the cold shoulder. I was too busy trying to figure out what I thought of the pair of actresses. Neither seems quite capable of "stealing" a picture, even though the script gives them every opportunity, what with a platoon of quirky men hovering about them like moths around a flame and many twists and turns in the ongoing power struggle between Alice and Charlotte, all through the death throes of disco as an early 80's phenomenon.

Chris Eigeman's Des McGrath, a nightclub functionary, serves as a mock-wide-eyed liaison between Mr. Stillman's credulous characters and the reputedly wilder world lurking at the club they patronize. Des is described in the program notes as a club underboss with the college and social background to bring in the "vodka and tonic crowd," a derogatory designation for people who want to play at living dangerously. MacKenzie Astin's Jimmy Steinway works at an advertising agency, but his main job is to get his firm's clients entree into the club, past a towering major-domo who rejects more people than he admits, thus creating long lines of the presumed unworthy voluntarily fostering the illusion of an inner sanctum of forbidden delights. Mr. Stillman doesn't indulge in the nuances of distinguishing between the presumably undesirable bridge-and-tunnel brigade and the sought-after cool cats and fringe celebrities.

When Des gets into trouble with his crooked boss for letting his "square" friends into the club by the back door, the picture begins to teeter uneasily between mild satire and mild melodrama. When Matt Keeslar's Josh Neff, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau's office, crashes the club scene with an ill-disguised devotion to disco, the movie begins to untie its anchor to reality altogether. The Stillmanesque rhetoric becomes more pompously exaggerated, the nervous tics of the characters more obtrusive.

There is not much sex, which is just as well, but when the comparatively angelic Alice comes down with a sexual disease after a one-night stand with Robert Sean Leonard's Tom Platt, a cynically womanizing lawyer who hangs out at the club to make easy conquests, the harsh realism of the situation is mildly shocking when so much else is sugarcoated. The concluding dance scene on a subway car is contagiously exhilarating enough to work as fantasy without dramatic or psychological closure. The musical flourishes make The Last Days of Disco more entertaining than Mr. Stillman's unsuccessfully transposed Barcelona , but Mr. Stillman's free ticket with the critics for the seemingly magical minimalism of Metropolitan has long since expired. In his future projects, all the charm and buoyancy in the world may not compensate for a lack of structure and bedrock reality.