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Movie Review: The World of Whit Stillman in METROPOLITAN and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO

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The key to understanding Whit Stillman – at least, to understanding the Manhattan-based Whit Stillman on display in Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco – is the Josh Neff character from the latter film.  As played by Matt Keeslar, this twenty-something assistant district attorney first seems tailor-made for derision; he speaks with the ostentatious patter of a 1940’s gumshoe (it can’t be a coincidence that he shares the same last name as Fred MacMurray’s doomed noir hero in Double Indemnity), and when he’s not dreaming of the days he can live out his law enforcement fantasies (his big ambition is to collar a perp so he can tell the arresting officer, “Book this clown”), he’s waxing rhapsodic in that same MacMurray/Edward G. Robinson/Humphrey Bogart cadence about the glories of disco.  Just imagine the following speech in that voice:

Disco will never be over.  It will always live in our minds and hearts. Something like this, that was this big, and this important, and this great, will never die…People will laugh about John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, white polyester suits, and platform shoes…but we had nothing to do with those things and still loved disco.  Those who didn’t understand will never understand: disco was much more, and much better, than all that.  Disco was too great, and too much fun, to be gone forever. It’s got to come back someday.  I just hope it will be in our own lifetimes.

This is crazy.  Even if Stillman didn’t include the surface loopiness of Josh’s overly serious demeanor giving credence to the genre that produced “Do the Hustle,” we’d still have a guy rhapsodizing about an “art” form on the decline.  It doesn’t really matter that Josh feels this way because in a few years (the movie takes place in 1981), disco will be little more than a tired punchline.  In moments like these, Josh comes off as crazy as his cynical acquaintance Des (Chris Eigeman, Stillman’s wry bard in both this and Metropolitan) says he is – why wouldn’t the delusions of a guy who once jumped up in a college cafeteria and unironically started singing church hymns extend to other facets of his life?

But here’s the thing: Josh is so sincere that you forgive him his idiosyncrasies.  His circle of friends (played by Eigeman, Chloë Sevigny, Mackenzie Astin, and a pre-Underworld Kate Beckinsale) might see the dance craze as a sparkly, glamorous way to find potential sexual conquests or score cheap drugs, but Josh only sees the ideal: that this flashy combo of music and motion brings people together, uniting them in a shared consciousness, in the translucent eyeball that Emerson felt connected nature and God and humanity.  It’s a deeply affirming, deeply appealing perspective, even if it is based on nonsense.

And that’s Stillman, in a nutshell.  He presents these highly flawed social systems – yuppies and disco aficionados in The Last Days of Disco, college debutantes in Metropolitan – but as he’s sending up their ridiculousness, he allows them dignity, grace, and even compassion.  Note his handling of Sevigny’s shy Disco heroine.  On the advice of her more sexually liberated best friend (Beckinsale), she debases herself to meet a cute guy (Robert Sean Leonard) and ends up getting both Chlamydia and herpes instead of him.  The moralist in Stillman lets her suffer, but the humanist in the filmmaker redeems her – she meets Josh, who loves her shyness, who loves her with herpes, who thinks she deserves to be treated like a lady.  Stillman cares about his heroes too much to damn their ways of life; even Eigeman and Beckinsale’s shallow hedonists eventually find solace in each other’s company.

In some ways, Stillman’s sympathetic/mocking vision is more striking in Metropolitan because its characters are younger and, therefore, more prone to potential elitist behavior.  Metropolitan follows its college-age cast from debutante party to debutante party over the span of a cold Christmas vacation, and our first impression is less than favorable; the protagonists wear formal tuxedoes and gowns and affect upper-crust accents and hold all sorts of Undergrad 101 opinions on Fourier and Lionel Trilling and know – just know – that their way of life is best.

And yet….

Stillman makes his upper-class twits the most inclusive and friendly group of upper-class twits you’ll ever meet.  Eigeman’s Nick Smith, the group’s acerbic ringleader, would be the villain in a less nuanced picture (here’s one of his characteristic barbs: “It’s a tiny bit arrogant of people to go around worrying about those less fortunate”), but in Metropolitan he emerges as the unlikely moral compass; he cherishes his friends’ weirdnesses, and he goes out of his way to make lower-class non-socialite Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) feel accepted in the group.

Carolyn Farina’s Audrey Rouget is far more thoughtful and contemplative than the stereotype of an over-privileged white girl, and while Taylor Nichols’ Charlie Black appears standoffish towards Tom, it’s only because he’s in love with Audrey, and he can’t stand seeing Audrey fall for Tom and not for him.  In fact, during the crisis that occupies Metropolitan‘s last act, Charlie is as dependable and reliable as the next man.  The only person who doesn’t receive Stillman’s sympathies is the venal Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), and that’s because his allegiances lie only to himself and his amoral sexual whims.  He’s a shark, and that’s his sin, and the thing that isolates him from all Stillman heroes – he doesn’t connect to any group, no matter how silly the group might be.

That’s the wonderful thing about Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco; they sneak past your defenses and draw you in, even if you think you know better.

Criterion’s Blu-rays honor the original A/V materials; Metropolitan was shot on 16mm but still looks sharp with pleasing grain (it also has a LPCM monaural track), while The Last Days of Disco shimmers in lush 35mm with a robust 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Features are solid.  On Metropolitan, you’ll find a commentary with Stillman, Nichols, Eigeman, and editor Christopher Tellefsen; ten minutes of outtakes; scenes featuring alternate casting (Stillman provides optional commentary); the theatrical trailer; and a Luc Sante essay.  The Last Days of Disco gets an affable commentary (with Stillman, Eigeman, and Sevigny); a vintage EPK featurette; the trailer; a nice bit where Stillman reads from his novel The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards; a photo gallery; four deleted scenes (w/optional commentary); and a booklet containing a David Schickler essay.

If Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald got together to make movies, they’d very much resemble these sweet, wry, and pleasantly cynical farces.  Highly recommended.

Both Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco are now available on Blu-ray; click HERE and HERE for their Amazon listings.