Friday May 29, 1998
Writer-director Whit Stillman makes wonderfully clever and confident films about insecure young people who are smarter than they are wise. Ferociously verbal types who chat knowledgeably about the propaganda value of language but worry that ordering the wrong drink will typecast them forever. "What if 'thine own self' is pretty bad?" someone wonders in reference to Shakespeare's famous line. "Wouldn't it be better not to be true to it?"
Those kinds of quintessentially youthful dilemmas form the heart of Stillman's latest film, the sharp-eyed and charming "The Last Days of Disco." Made with Stillman's trademark dry wit and whimsical sense of humor, it is a continuation of the filmmaker's equally stylish first venture, 1990's "Metropolitan."
While "Disco's" ensemble of recent college graduates is older than the characters of "Metropolitan," they inhabit the same unmistakable universe of Manhattan's youthful upper crust. It's a small yet quite specific world where the women have subsidized jobs in publishing and the men went to Harvard, but Stillman captures it with such fine-grained exactness that thoughts of Jane Austen's tiny romantic cosmos are not out of place.
Working together as editorial assistants in "the very early 1980s" are recent Hampshire graduates Alice Kinnon (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte Pingress (Kate Beckinsale). Drones during the day, they glamorize at night and head to Manhattan's hottest disco (unnamed but modeled after Studio 54), where they inevitably wonder whom they'll see, whom they'll meet, whom they'll pair up with, and, most important, whether any of it will lead to love.
Alice is blond, acerbic and borderline mousy, which is why she overcompensates for her fear of being mistaken for a kindergarten teacher by telling men, "I live dangerously, on the edge." A decent person under her anxieties, Alice deserves better than Charlotte for a best friend, but Charlotte is whom she's got.
Beautifully played without the hint of an accent by British actress Beckinsale (memorable in "Cold Comfort Farm"), Charlotte is bossy and self-promoting, the kind of person who makes cutting comments and then claims she's just trying to be honest and/or helpful. With Charlotte as a guide, it's no wonder that her friend's romantic waters are choppy.
Two men are on Alice's short list for possible romance. Tom Platt (Robert Sean Leonard) is a Kennedy-esque lawyer interested in environmental causes and a collector of original Carl Barks comic art. Jimmy Steinway (Mackenzie Astin) is a young advertising man whose main function is getting his clients into the same hot disco club Alice and Charlotte hang out in.
Helping Jimmy out in that department is Des (Stillman veteran Chris Eigeman), one of the club's managers, who has the unfortunate habit of telling women who get too close that he's just discovered (via watching "Wild Kingdom" of all things) that he's gay. Also in the club a lot is another college pal, the earnest Josh (Matthew Keeslar), a passionate believer in the disco ethos who happens to work for New York's district attorney.
"Disco's" exceptional acting ensemble is especially successful at capturing the brittle rituals of this specific group of genteel, well-spoken young people on the cusp of adulthood who say things like "What I was craving was a sentient individual" and "It's far more complicated and nuanced than that." Overflowing with that once-in-a-lifetime combination of naivete and sophistication, blindness and self-awareness, these yearlings are trying mightily to impress both one another and themselves.
Believing that "before disco this country was a dance wasteland," these folks are also united by their love of the disco lifestyle. And with a hopping soundtrack of 22 favorites, including Blondie's "The Tide Is High" and "Heart of Glass," "The Last Days of Disco" almost makes you believe that those sweaty, snobbish and overcrowded clubs might have been fun.
"Disco" is the third film ("Barcelona" followed "Metropolitan") in what writer-director Stillman calls his "Doomed-Bourgeois-in-Love series." He talks in the press notes (it's impossible to know how seriously) about doing next an 18th century historical adventure film. "Real movie-making--dialogue films no more!" he writes. "Maybe still some talking, but on horseback."
While that would be something to see, Stillman handles this world so adroitly it would be a shame if he didn't see his way clear to revisiting it, if only from time to time.
The Last Days of Disco, 1998. R for some elements involving sexuality and drugs. A Castle Rock Entertainment production, released by Gramercy Pictures. Director-producer Whit Stillman. Executive producer John Sloss. Screenplay by Whit Stillman. Cinematographer John Thomas. Editors Andrew Hafitz, Jay Pires. Costumes Sarah Edwards. Music Mark Suozzo. Production design Ginger Tougas. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. Chloe Sevigny as Alice. Kate Beckinsale as Charlotte. Chris Eigeman as Des. Mackenzie Astin as Jimmy. Matt Keeslar as Josh.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times