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Despite Zingy Dialogue, "Damsels in Distress" Too Self-Conscious And Irritating

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Woody Allen makes a film every year. In the early 2000s, he made some misfires that didn’t recapture the same sharpness of his “earlier, funnier ones.” Now, the same could be said of writer-director Whit Stillman, although he hasn’t made a movie since 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco.” That’s thirteen years too long, and his latest, “Damsels in Distress,” goes right in step with 1990’s “Metropolitan” and 1994’s “Barcelona,” which were droll, chatty slices of life of the “urban haute bourgeoisie.” However, this one is less indicative of his “earlier, funnier ones,” feeling like pretentious science fiction as if Stillman wanted to make a more old-fashioned, sophisticated “Heathers,” “Clueless,” or “Mean Girls” mixed with Noah Baumbach’s 1995 pre-mumblecore debut “Kicking and Screaming.”

“Damsels in Distress” takes place at Seven Oaks College, where a clique of three preppy, self-possessed co-eds, Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), walk around campus with the best of do-good intentions. They all wear modest, starchy clothing and speak with sophistication, while running a suicide prevention center. (In a very funny sight gag, the “prevention” part of their center’s sign has fallen down, leaving it as “Suicide Center.”) Students in need of the girls’ therapy receive free doughnuts and coffee, and have their spirits raised by practicing tap dancing. They also promote hygiene, holding their noses when stinky frat boys of the Doar Dorm run past them but then sending the B.O.-ridden morons some fragrant soap from the Motel 4. At the start of a new semester, the trio picks out a transfer sophomore named Lily (Analeigh Tipton), taking her under their wing and showing her the ropes. Violet warns Lily to avoid handsome men (until Adam Brody’s Charlie takes notice of her) and thanks her for her “chastisement” when Lily rebels and openly calls her arrogant, hypocritical, and insane. But the ever-optimistic Violet’s main goal for the year, if all things go as planned, is doing something significant with her life, like starting a new dance craze called the “Sambola.”

If it sounds like the film isn’t much in terms of plot, a driving narrative has never been in Stillman’s deck of cards. Rather, he makes way for a series of non-sequiturs and eggheady vocabulary that are sometimes amusing in their absurdity. Ryan Metcalf’s Frank and Billy Magnussen’s Thor are lunk-headed frat boys that never learned their colors, so they get bent out of shape when someone comments on the color of Frank’s eyes. Echikunwoke’s British-speaking Rose amusingly calls most men “playboy operators” and “confidence tricksters,” and when Lily asks if the campus boys are the same age as them, Rose answers with “Only numerically.” Lily tells the girls about her French pal Xavier (Hugo Becker), the dim Heather tries proving to Lily that his name is probably spelled with a “Z” (like Zorro). There’s also a joke involving said Xavier who prefers “non-procreative love” for his Cathar religion.

Dialogue extraordinaire Whit Stillman was the Diablo Cody of the ’90s and continues here writing sparkling, arch dialogue that can feel “written” and self-conscious. The filmmaker goes for a retro, affectedly odd vibe with his idiosyncratic characters living inside a heightened reality, a bubble of a campus that isn’t far off from Stepford. It’s fascinatingly ethereal and pretty funny for the first half-hour, until it’s just off-putting, a little going a long way.

These elitist WASPs are flawed underneath, but they’re too concerned with peaking during their college years to be honest with themselves. Stillman’s use of ironic detachment from his protagonists (or perhaps we’re actually supposed to find them quirky and interesting?) holds us back from connecting with almost anyone. We’re kind of at a standstill with the filmmaker’s point when these characters are dealing with real issues (i.e. suicide), but none of them feel like real people. (Lena Dunham and her cohorts on HBO’s “Girls” giving these damsels a reality check would’ve been more fun.) At least Lovable indie darling Gerwig doesn’t come to work without bringing charm, even as Violet, and effortlessly makes all of the highfalutin verbiage zing. For example, she calls “doufi” the plural form of “doofus,” considers herself “in a tailspin” when she falls into depression, and mistakes ’90s dance-party music for the “golden oldies.” Her second and third commands (Echikunwoke and MacLemore) also latch onto Stillman’s unusual style quite well. But it’s the lovely and lanky Tipton (who broke out as a fresh face in last year’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) that stands out from the chirpy four, bringing a more even-keeled wisdom and refreshing uncertainty as Lily. There’s even a tiny role for Aubrey Plaza, all Daria-esque deadpan as a depressed damsel.

Every now and then, a sly, tart one-liner will be delivered and it earns a half-bewildered chuckle. No one needs reassurance that Stillman can write smart, offbeat dialogue and has a voice unlike anyone else, but “Damsels in Distress” becomes all so irritating and too cute by half. Long before the cast performs a fun, charming Fred Astaire-style musical number (complete with Gerwig and Brody tap-dancing in a water fountain), it’s too little, too late to not feel distressed yourself.

99 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C