Monday, February 18, 2008

Review of The Last Days of Disco

I’ve been very happy with the sophisticated urban-indie comedies that came crawling out of the woodwork in the 90’s and have continued to sustain my picky sense of humor like a faint trickle from a faucet in the desert. One could argue that the media landscape is flooded with low-budget quirky comedies trying to be the next “Royal Tenenbaums” or “Napoleon Dynamite,” but to be honest, most of them are just not that inspired. The genuine Wes Andersons, Hal Hartleys and Noah Baumbachs, directors able to sustain unique voices in an era still picking up after Woody Allen, are a rare bunch indeed. One of the least prolific has been Whit Stillman.

“The Last Days of Disco” (1998) is typical of his talky style, although it ostensibly concerns a plot that includes a hip nightclub, hard drugs and a police sting. Though present, Stillman could probably care less about the clichés and hype that surrounds the era. You won’t be “magically transported to the cusp of the 1980’s,” but he uses the setting effectively for his trademark verbal showmanship and eye for character detail.

Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale star as Alice and Charlotte, two assistant editors with uncertain romantic and professional futures. The one aspiration that has materialized is getting into one of the hottest disco clubs in Manhattan where Des (Chris Eigeman) works and ad-man Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) takes his clients. They soon form a tight-knit kernel with attorney Tom and a few others, getting high on the few remaining vapors of the 70’s as disco disperses. The film mostly concerns their conversations and relationships, but the audience isn’t allowed to completely forget that events happen and the world changes.

The acting really shines, with Sevigny and Beckinsale making suitable opposites in some of their earliest roles. (Let me apologize to the world for praising Beckinsale a second time, I will try not to let it happen again.) Alice is a fairly straight-forward “nice girl” whose shyness and indecision provide the usual non-threatening obstacles before happiness. Charlotte is far more assertive and catty, but the type of person who will force you to be her best friend even as she is stabbing you in the back. Easily my favorite role has to be Chris Eigeman as Des, reprising his cynical misanthrope role from every Stillman film to date. At this point I think I’d be fine with Eigeman getting a speaking part in every movie for the next three years.

The writing isn’t quite as consistent in tone as Stillman’s “Metropolitan” (1990), but there’s more going on this time around. The overly-perfect cadence of the intellectual banter is still delightfully witty, surprising and quotable, but it sometimes hogs the spotlight entirely to itself and feels a touch out of place in a jam-packed disco. Should they even be able to hear each other without shouting? Didn’t some of the people in the 70’s use slang or imperfect diction? Oh well.

Whether he’s writing quick one-liners or extended diatribes, Stillman has a knack for making the comedic dialogue do its share of the character development. One of my favorite little slivers of weirdness is when Jimmy’s ad agency clients get kicked out of the club despite hiding inside of “Wizard of Oz” costumes. They ask Des when he needs to return the outfits. “Oh, those are mine. Just drop them off at my place some time.” I think it’s sad that Stillman’s writing hasn’t earned him the college-kid following that forms Quintin Tarantino or Kevin Smith’s cyberspace entourage. Overly cynical interpretations of childhood classics like the following “Lady and the Tramp” (1955) piece would seem to be prime pickings:

“There is something depressing about it and it's not really about dogs. Except for some superficial bow-wow stuff at the start, the dogs all represent human types, which is where it gets into real trouble. Lady, the ostensible protagonist, is a fluffy blond cocker spaniel with absolutely nothing on the brain. She's great looking but, let's be honest, incredibly insipid. Tramp, the love interest is a smarmy braggart of the most obnoxious kind, an oily jail bird out for a piece of tail or whatever he can get. He's a self confessed chicken thief; an all around sleaze ball. What's the function of a film of this kind? Essentially it's a primer about love and marriage directed at very young people, imprinting on their little psyches that smooth talking delinquents recently escaped from the local pound are a good match for nice girls in sheltered homes. When in ten years the icky human version of Tramp shows up around the house their hormones will be racing and no one will understand why. Films like this program women to adore jerks.”

There’s a good one on “Bambi,” too.

As for the music, the obvious expectations will be fulfilled. I’m actually kind of a fan of disco’s trashy indulgence. I see it as sort of the musical equivalent of B-movies. There is one track that sticks out like a sore thumb, and for added insult it gets encored during the credits, but otherwise the tracklist is a lot of fun.

Other than the music and the club interior, there isn’t much historical detail. The fashion seems directly out of the mid-90’s (when the film was made) rather than the coronation of the Reagan reign (not that I minded). I’m skeptical of how sincere Whit Stillman is when he adopts an elegiac tone, but I’m glad he has the good sense to be a touch sarcastic towards his nostalgia (the final “disco can never truly die” speech is priceless) and I love his little barbs at the 60’s counter-culture self-righteousness.

If your not into the style of humor or the habitually flawed characters, the film is likely to come off as yet another angsty gab-fest about conspicuously attractive twenty-somethings pairing off and impressing each other with their oh-so-pithy quips. In other incarnations the same setup could be poisoned hipster bait. I, however, tend to enjoy these oddly-matched marriages of genre outlines and deadpan comedy (see Hartley’s “Amateur” (1994) and “Fay Grim” (2006) for some other examples). One minor complaint I had concerned the ending: the film goes one shot too long, missing a beautiful opportunity to finish the film on the least likely characters.

Walrus Rating: 7.5


Mad Dog said...

At least you apologized.

Unknown said...

I love stillman now.

Why didn't I show his stuff to friends in high school, instead of kevin smith?