American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
After the arrival of his first feature “Metropolitan” (1990), those enamored by writer/director Whit Stillman’s droll comedy of manners compared him to no less than Woody Allen. One big difference between the two concerns their respective levels of productivity—while Allen has continued to put out an average of a movie a year, Stillman has been known to take as much as 14 years between films. These long gaps have not hurt the quality of Stillman's work, but it does mean that there may be an entire generation of moviegoers who have virtually no idea who he is, or the joys to be had with his films.
Happily, we are now in a rare period of abundance for Stillman fans. Not only does he have a new film, “Love & Friendship,” a delightful adaptation of the Jane Austen novella “Lady Susan,” due for release in a couple of weeks, but the Criterion Collection has seen fit to release “The Whit Stillman Trilogy” (The Criterion Collection, $79.95), a bundling of his first three films. It includes the previously issued editions of his first and third movies, “Metropolitan” and “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), as well as the Blu-ray debut of his second and perhaps most obscure work, the charming international comedy “Barcelona” (1994).
Set in New York over the holidays, “Metropolitan” follows a group of young members of the high society set as they navigate their way through a seemingly endless series of parties, balls and after-parties. Our guide to this world is Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), an outsider to this particular milieu whose rented tux earns him admittance to a close-knit group of friends when he winds up sharing a cab with some of them. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, they spend seemingly all their time together discussing everything from literature to philosophy to matters of the heart that suggests that they were raised on the New Yorker instead of Dick & Jane. One of the members of this group, the shy but incredibly sweet Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), develops an instant crush on Tom but he is too taken with the more obvious charms of the glamorous Serena Slocum (Elizabeth Thompson) to notice, leading to a wince-inducing moment when he inadvertently breaks her heart without even realizing it during a game of Truth or Dare. Completely crushed, it seems as if Audrey may now be vulnerable to the slick charms of another interloper, one whose rumored past depravations have been chronicled in exhausting detail by the ultra-cynical Nick (Christopher Eigeman). By the time Tom finally wises up to Audrey’s affection for him and to the fact that he feels the same towards her, it may already be too late.
I realize that the above description may not make “Metropolitan” sound like the most appealing of films—after all, why would anyone be interested in watching the romantic trials of a group of overprivileged dopes who spend most of their time talking instead of doing anything?—but I promise you that the film is an utter delight from start to finish. Stillman’s dialogue is both witty and erudite and virtually every scene comes up with at least one zinger that you will want to deploy at your next soirée. At the same time, he also includes a number of bits that serve as a subtle critique of the closet world that the characters reside in as it comes to an end before their eyes. In the funniest scene, it appears that Audrey has left for the Hamptons to see the other interloper. Tom and budding social critic Charlie (Taylor Nichols) decide to take action for once by renting a car and driving out to rescue her—the gesture, alas, is stymied because, having lived in the city all their lives, neither of them have ever bothered to acquire driver’s licenses.
The performances from the cast of newcomers are strong as well and all of them seem comfortable delivering Stillman’s dense and droll dialogue. Although Clements is the basic focus of the film as the audience surrogate and Eigeman steals pretty much all of his scenes with his never-ending stream of barbs, the best performance in the film is the one turned in by Carolyn Farina, whose work is so sweet and unaffected throughout that even the most curmudgeonly of viewers will pretty much fall in love with her from the moment that she first appears. She is so good here, in fact, that it is a little enraging to realize that she never quite managed to break through the ranks of actresses despite her obvious talent and charm—if one wants to list the crimes committed by Hollywood in the Nineties, failing to make Farina a star definitely belongs near the top.
“Metropolitan” received rave reviews from critics, became a decent-sized hit on the art-house circuit and earned Stillman an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It also attracted the attention of the Castle Rock production company and got him the financing for his next film, “Barcelona,” which he had actually wanted to make as his first film but put it aside to make the easier-to-fund “Metropolitan.” Inspired in part by his own experiences working in Spain as a sales agent for filmmakers such as Fernando Trueba and set, as the opening titles state, during “the last decade of the Cold War,” it tells the story of two American cousins representing American business and military interests in a country whose populace is not necessarily interested in either. Ted (Taylor Nichols) is a slightly repressed salesman from Illinois who is working out of the Barcelona office of his faceless U.S. corporation who throws himself into his work to take his mind off of his uneven love life. Fred (Christopher Eigeman) is his cousin, a U.S. Navy officer who arrives unexpectedly to help with the public relations regarding the imminent arrival of the U.S. fleet. The two have had a rocky relationship since childhood but Ted nevertheless takes him in and shows him around. Both find themselves attracted to some of the beautiful English-speaking women employed as hostesses for the never-ending trade fairs—having made the bold statement that he plans on only going for less attractive women in order to remove the possibility of jealousy ruining a potential relationship, Ted immediately falls for the gorgeous Montserrat (Tushka Bergen) while Fred immediately sets his sights on Marta (a then-unknown Mira Sorvino). As time goes on, the two sense that they and what they represent are not entirely welcome in the country, with things exacerbated even further by Fred’s tendency to draw further attention to himself by always dressing in uniform and taking the greatest possible offense to anything that he perceives as being anti-American. He even tries to rewrite some graffiti with a marker at one point.
It had been a while since I had last seen “Barcelona” but it only took a few minutes of watching the Blu-ray to realize that it was just as good as I had remembered. As was the case with “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” is filled with any number of wonderfully-written moments ranging from zingy one-liners (“I don’t go to bed with just anyone anymore. I have to be attracted to them sexually”) to hilarious monologues in which his characters expound on their pet obsessions, ranging from Ted’s admiring identification with Willy Loman to Fred’s side-splitting misinterpretation of the finale of “The Graduate” (“This obnoxious Dustin Hoffman character shows up at the back of the church, acting like a total asshole ...”) The performances are for the most part excellent as well—although the characters they play are superficially similar to the ones they played in “Metropolitan,” both Nichols and Eigeman find new shadings that make them seem like more than just retreads, while Bergen is quite good as the woman who catches the eye of both Ted and, eventually, Fred. (Sorvino is the closest thing to a weak link in the cast—her performance is just fine but now that we know what she sounds like in real life, her Spanish accent is occasionally a bit distracting.)
The big difference between “Barcelona” and “Metropolitan” is that while the characters in the previous film essentially lived in a bubble that the outside world never penetrated, “Barcelona” allows reality to come through (possibly because Stillman is less nostalgic for the machinations of Cold War life than those of high society), through a series of quietly pointed barbs that critique America’s political and business influence in other countries, without ever getting too heavy-handed in the bargain. For various reasons, “Barcelona” has been difficult to see in recent years and is now probably the least-seen of the films in this collection. However, it is as fresh and funny today as it was when it opened 22 years ago and it is one that is ripe for rediscovery.
As was the case with “Barcelona,” “The Last Days of Disco” saw Stillman working on a larger scale than he had done previously, once again doing a period piece of relatively recent vintage. Set in the early Eighties, the film sees him returning to the streets of Manhattan to follow a group of young people who have just emerged from their high-priced Ivy League educations that have left them erudite but not exactly ready for the demands of the real world. By day, they struggle to find their way into potential careers and at night, they blow off steam and work on their increasingly complicated love lives at a popular local disco not far removed from the legendary Studio 54. This time around, the two central characters are Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chloë Savigny), a pair of young women who are roommates, work at the same publishing company and share the same personal and professional neuroses of all young people of the time—the difference is that Charlotte masks her insecurities with a chilly and cynical veneer that oftentimes slips over into outright bitchiness while the shyer Alice struggles to be more of a people-pleaser in ways that have a tendency to backfire on her. (At one point, she decides to take up Charlotte’s suggestion that guy will pay more attention to her conversation if she mentions how “sexy” the subject is, only to find that there are certain topics where that approach is less than effective.) There are, of course, men in their orbit as well, including Des (Eigeman), who is the owner of the club and who has a tendency to sleep with most of his female clientele and then insist that he is really gay when it seems that they are getting too close, Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), an ambitious ad executive who struggles to get his clients admitted into the popular club in order to get their business and assistant district attorney Josh (Matt Keeslar), a straightforward fellow who tries to court Alice even as he quietly tries to build a criminal case against Des for his various illicit dealings.
When “The Last Days of Disco” was originally released in theaters in the spring of 1998, it came during a brief bloom of films set during the disco era that included the great “Boogie Nights” and the deeply compromised “54.” However, it doesn’t take long to realize that Stillman is not interested in revealing in the hedonistic excesses of the era or by making silly jokes about the then-current music and fashion trends. Instead, he is far more interested in doing what he does best—observing and exploring the lives of a group of hyper-articulate but utterly confused young people who attempt to use their gifts of gab as a way of staving off their true feelings for each other until they are eventually forced to confronts the truths in front of them. As usual, he goes about this by presenting a number of wonderfully written scenes in which the characters practically jostle each other in their attempts to over-intellectualize everything as a way of demonstrating how clever and au courant they are—at one point, it is suggested that the entire environmental movement has been inspired almost entirely by multiple generations of young people being traumatized as kids by the death of Bambi’s mother. Stillman’s satirical touches are as effective as ever, as in the scene in which a real estate agent tries to sell Charlotte and Alice on the dubious benefits of a “railroad apartment” in the same way that the Mercedes dealer in “Lost in America” was hyping up the “Mercedes leather.”
Although Beckinsale and Sevigny (who would go on to reunite with Stillman for “Love & Friendship”) were not quite stars yet when they made the film, these remain among the best performances of their careers. Beckinsale’s work is so good that you may be bugged that she has wasted her talents over the years in crap like the “Underworld” films and Sevigny’s sweetly vulnerable turn may surprise this who know her only from her generally edgier work. Among the supporting players, Eigeman once again steals the show with his super-dry line readings. If there is a difference between this film and Stillman’s previous efforts, it is in how he demonstrates more of a visual flair this time than in the past, especially in regards to the slick and stylish approach to the nightclub scenes that nevertheless keeps the focus squarely on the characters and the conversations they are having than on any overtly show-offy moves. Culminating in a magical dance number on a train platform that is an out-of-nowhere delight, I would argue that this film is not only the highlight of Stillman’s early filmmaking period but the best and most completely satisfying thing that he has done to date.
To have the three films together at last is a joy by itself, but “The Whit Stillman Trilogy” contains a number of entertaining and informative extras as well. The discs for “Metropolitan” and “The Last Days of Disco” are the same as the ones that Criterion has previously released as stand-alone titles and contain the same extras as well—“Metropolitan” features a commentary from Stillman, Eigeman, Nichols and editor Christopher Tellefsen and a series of outtakes and alternative casting choices that include additional commentary from Stillman. “The Last Days of Disco” finds the director teaming with Eigeman and Savigny for commentary tracks on the film and a collection of deleted scenes and going solo with a reading from “The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards,” the novel based on the film that he published a couple of years after its release. For its Criterion Collection debut, “Barcelona” contains a commentary track recorded by Stillman, Eigeman and Nichols for a 2002 DVD release and also offers a video essay on the three films by critic Farran Smith Nehme, deleted scenes (including an alternate ending), a behind-the-scenes featurette made to coincide with its original theatrical release and excerpts from interviews that Stillman did for “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1991 and the “Today” show and “Charlie Rose” from 1994.
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