Whit Stillman, wordy WASP

I miss the early 90s. Sort of. Of maybe I miss the days when I thought it would be cool to live in a Whit Stillman movie. Here’s the link to my review, which is also here.

There was a period in the early 1990s when Whit Stillman was going to be the WASP Woody Allen. With Metropolitan and Barcelona, Stillman had made hyper-verbal, hyper-intellectual, and hyper-ironic comedies about privileged white people from the Northeast, been nominated for an Oscar for the former and lauded by critics for the latter. But 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, about the “urban haute bourgeoisie” trying to make sense of disco, didn’t work; it was stilted, a bit dull and not very funny. And then Stillman disappeared for 13 years. I adored his first two movies, so I was thrilled that he had a new one; I was primed to love Damsels in Distress. As Violet says in the film, “The past is over, so why not romanticize it?” But Violet, as it turns out, is somewhat of a dolt. Damsels in Distress reminded me of what I loved about Manhattan and Barcelona; I laughed and laughed. But it also revealed that Stillman has not gotten any better at directing movies or controlling his own wit.

Taking a cue from Mean Girls, the film opens with the arrival at the fictional Seven Oaks College of Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a down-to-earth transfer student who is immediately taken under the wing of three women who run the Suicide Prevention Center: Violet (Greta Gerwig) is the articulate, opinionated, arrogant and often-wrong leader; Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) has an English accent and is proudly obsessed with proper appearances; Heather (Carrie MacLemore) is pretty and quite dumb. Lily’s new friends are appalled by the odors of the dirty dorms and adore the world of the Roman Letters Houses (Seven Oaks’ frats), because the men there are such losers and are so lost and therefore need their help. And what help: Their treatment for clinical depression mostly involves tap-dancing and donuts.

The plot mostly revolves around Violet and Lily’s love lives and friendship. Violet is in love with the amazingly boneheaded Frank (Ryan Metcalf), while Lily is enamored with the French-accented, oddly religious Xavier (Hugo Becker); at various times, both Lily and Violet also date Charlie (Adam Brody), who may or may not be a management consultant. These various entanglements are fodder for Violet’s pontifications about right behavior, wrong attitudes and good manners. Her monologues, with Rose and Heather acting as a sort of Greek chorus and Lily as a foil, are as good as any Stillman wrote in the 1990s. They are absurdly hilarious because they are such brilliant parodies of everyone from Miss Manners to Candace Bushnell.

As pointed and snappy as Stillman’s writing is – and as great as everyone in the cast is at reciting his lines – I found it hard to figure out what his point was. Some of his characters behave consistently and naturally, but others are pure comic archetypes who exist simply for the benefit of an extended joke. While I think it’s easy for the audience to relate to the believable Lily, Violet is so absurd, so arch that she is not a possible person. And Thor (Billy Magnusson), one of the morons of the Roman Letters Houses, is so ignorant that he does not know the names of the colors. His scenes are hilarious, but it’s hard to understand how he exists in the same world as Lily, Xavier or Charlie. Stillman has thought through his jokes with amazing skill, but the film has the depth of a skit. Granted, it’s a pretty sharp and funny and fully-realized skit.

Damsels in Distress
Written and directed by Whit Stillman
Starring Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton and Adam Brody
Rated PG-13
At Landmark Hillcrest

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