Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Last Days of Disco: Greatly Belated Comments

Whit Stillman's film is about attractive, Ivy League educated (some of them), white, twenty somethings who are more clever than they are wise. Ferociously chatty, the talk endlessly, sometimes brilliantly, about nothing much at all--The Lady and the Tramp-- who understand the propaganda value of language but worry that ordering the wrong drink typecasts them.

"What if 'thine own self' is pretty bad?" the seedy, likeable, bad boy Des wonders. "Wouldn't it be better not to be true to it?"

That kind of endless talk informs the heart of Last Days, the talk, talk, talk, and the characters depicted by all the talk are incisive and charming. Made with subtle, dry wit, the movie is relentlessly whimsical. In fact, I'd argue, whimsy--in the sense of "capricious; odd; peculiar; playful; light-hearted or amusing"--is Last Day's theme--this crowd of young, quasi adults as whimsicial, their whimsy of the essence of their particular youth-- and is its predominant sensibility.

They inhabit the world of Manhattan's youthful elite in the early eighties. It's a small yet concretely specific world where the young women have subsidized jobs in publishing and the young men went to Harvard. Stillman captures it with granular, articulate precision.

Working together as editorial assistants in are recent Hampshire graduates Alice Kinnon (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte Pingress (Kate Beckinsale). After low level, book publishing drudgery during the day, they glam up at at night and head to Manhattan's hottest disco (unnamed but modeled after Studio 54.) There they are concerned with who they'll see, who they'll meet and who they might hook up with.

Alice is blond, astringent, serious, with sexy, miminalist moves and ways. Decent, fiercly intelligent under her anxieties, she deserves better than Charlotte for a friend, but Charlotte is who she has.

Well played with no bit of a British accent by Beckinsdale, Charlotte is bossy, insultingly candid, incredibly and wittily superficial in an Oscar Wilde sort of way, and intensely self-promoting yet vulnerable. She cuts others and then claims she's just trying to be honest or helpful. With Charlotte as a guide, it's no wonder Alice's romantic waters swirl in eddies and counter eddies.

Two of the young men on the scene are Tom Platt (Robert Sean Leonard) a Kennedy-lite lawyer interested in environmental causes and a collector of original Carl Barks comic art and Jimmy Steinway (Mackenzie Astin) a young advertising man. His job is getting his clients into the same hot disco Alice and Charlotte go to.

Helping Jimmy out is Des (Chris Eigeman), one of the club's managers, who tells women getting too close that he's just discovered (via watching "Wild Kingdom", of all things) he's gay. Also on the scene is the more serious Josh (Matthew Keeslar), a passionate believer in the disco ethos and a New York assistant district Attorney for Robert Morgenthau.

The exceptional acting successfully captures the brittle rituals of this group of genteel, somehwat supercilious and well-spoken graduates on the doorstep of adulthood

One final comment: we don't get the omnipresence of the disco the way we do in Saturday Night Fever. Rather, though the club is there and frames the movie, it's essentially background, the way New York is background--important background but still background--in Woody Allen movies. And disco is background (the way New York is for Woody Allen) for one reason: the movie is, as noted, more about the idea of disco in its characters' lives for as much as they go to the club, dance, hang out, talk and hook up there.

3 2/3ds stars out of 5.

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