Friday, September 19, 2014

Retro Trio - a Whit (Still)man Sampler: Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998)

Metropolitan (1990)

Director: Whit Stillman

For the first fifteen minutes, I was close to turning this one off. By the half-hour mark, it had done just enough to keep me interested. By the end, I felt it was decent.

In a style drawing some rather clear tones from Woody Allen, Metropolitan focuses wholly on coming-of-age yuppies in Manhattan of the 1980s. I know, I know. It sounds pretty horrible. And honestly, during those aforementioned initial fifteen minutes, it was really demanding. The only thing to carry it through was the story of the protagonist, Tom - an idealist lower-middle class guy who finds himself dragged into the summer routine of the far wealthier class. He goes along initially as an observational experiment, to witness first-hand the "evils" that such classes embody. Conflicts start to arise, though, when he begins to fall for one of the girls who is part of the group - the sweet, pretty, and unassuming Audrey.

It's this conflict that provides nearly all of the watch-ability of the film. That, and the performance of Chris Eigeman as Nick, a cynical and self-confident yet affable motormouth who befriends Tom and attempts to guide him through the minefield of protocols that the upper class walks along. If it weren't for Tom's story and Nick, the movie would have fallen very flat.

Some of the dullness comes from the theme of the "snob" class itself. It's just far too difficult to get very wrapped up in their little plights and concerns. Although Stillman is mostly mocking them, the mockery isn't often all that funny. The more glaring weakness, though, is the performances. Several of the actors are simply not very good. The most obvious one is Taylor Nichols, who plays the annoyingly pedantic and self-righteous Charlie. Nichols completely overplays how neurotic and obsessive Charlie is, to the point that I could barely take his presence on the screen by the end of the film. Fortunately, he doesn't get a great amount of screen time, until the very end.

It's a decent movie. The fact that it was Stillman's first was enough to urge me to watch his next effort...

Barcelona (1994)

It's a better film than Metropolitan, if still not exactly a masterpiece. Following the relationship of two cousins - Ted, a stuffy salesman, and Fred, a shallow military diplomat - the movie details their dysfunctional interactions with each other and the women with whom they fall in love and lust. Everything is set in the titular city in Spain, where anti-American sentiment and ultra-sensitivity to fascism go hand-in-hand, much to the chagrin of Fred. The two cousins intermittently grow annoyed with each other, come to love the same woman, and generally get in each others' way, as they have since they were very young boys growing up in the U.S.

The movie is more consistently funny than Stillman's first movie, with the jokes being a bit sharper, and the characters being more consistently engaging. There is also the far more vibrant setting of Barcelona itself, which provides flashier locales and characters for Ted and Fred to interact with.

The movie is far from a home run, though. The writing, like Metropolitan, often seems a little more fit for the stage than for cinema, lacking the organic naturalism that one should expect to get in the medium. Detracting further from any feel of authenticity is the casting of Taylor Nichols as the main protagonist. As annoying and stilted as his performance in Metropolitan was, it is amplified in Barcelona, seeing as how he plays the main character Ted. I honestly do not know what Stillman saw in Nichols that he cast him in such a major part, but his performance was distracting in its weakness. Fortunately, Stillman also saw fit to give the second biggest role to Chris Eigeman, who once again carries the movie by playing the self-absorbed, fast-talking, and ever-contradictory Fred.

Barcelona is a step up from Metropolitan, though I didn't find it to be any sort of "breakout" film. It still smacks very heavily of being a Woody Allen movie clone, though a slightly watered down one.

The Last Days of Disco (1998)

The Last Days of Disco is probably the strongest of the three films, even if I don't find it a work of excellence.

My lack of full praise is probably due to my tempered interest in the central character type - the yuppie. Even with some decent dialogue, dramatic episodes, and an atmospheric setting, I can only care so much about the yuppie class of the 1980s. Ultimately, it is a self-absorbed type who wear on my viewing patience, not unlike the wealthy types who are the focus of the screwball comedy genre of the '30s and '40s.

The Last Days of Disco chronicle the relationships and professional woes of a handful of young people in Manhattan in, as the film states with an introductory caption, "the very early 80s." This, of course, was just when the death knell for the disco era was pealing, and the glamour that went with the disco club scene was fading out. This all sets up some fairly amusing scenarios, as those desperate to cling to the waning fashions and glamorous hedonism of the previous decade are forced to mingle with ad executives and other yuppie white collar types who were attempting to mark many of the chic areas of Manhattan as their domain. The blending of different types is fairly comical at times.

What is hard to get past is just how unlikable most of the characters are. Stillman tries to make them humorous by letting them air their views, which are usually shallow, callous, or just plain mean-spirited. Sometimes it was humorous, but often it was merely despicable, leading to my complete understanding of the late-'80s catchphrase, "Die, yuppie scum."

So I've given Whit Stillman more than a fair shake, and I think I'm done with him. Over the course of his first three films, I saw a bit of progress in the technical aspects of the movie, but the topics and characters never did enough for me to completely buy in.