April 6, 2012
Damsels in Distress
I'm a fan of Whit Stillman, and I've missed him as much as anyone. Metropolitan came out when I was in high school, and I rented it on VHS many times from my local video store. I loved the window into the lives of rich smart kids in Manhattan, and the way they spoke like they were confident, well-educated grownups, though they were really just teenagers who spent most of their time hanging out with their friends at their parents' houses talking about movies and playing truth or dare and mildly risqué card games. It was funny and smart in a way I hadn't seen outside a Woody Allen movie, but it made fun of these rich kids and their privileged lives, too. When one character explains his new term "UHB" ("urban haute bourgeoisie") to describe themselves, another says, "Is our language so impoverished that we have to use acronyms of French phrases to make ourselves understood?"
Anyway, we all missed Whit Stillman in the 14 years or whatever since his last movie (Last Days of Disco). So maybe that explains why the reviews of his new one, Damsels in Distress, are so positive. I saw it last night, and thought it was a failure. The movie makes a valiant attempt at creating an imaginary world where college girls offer tap dancing as therapeutic treatment for suicidal students and date comically moronic frat boys as part of their charitable efforts to improve the world, and other twee little things like that. But the plot is all over the place--it's a series of events and revelations that are barely connected to each other except by their tweeness.
Lots of mildly humorous things happen, there are small triumphs and mishaps and a lot of pastel cardigans, then there are two song-and-dance numbers, then roll credits. The fact that both my viewing partner and I fell asleep during the last 20 minutes or so is only a partial explanation for my failure to grasp any larger ideas at work. A movie with a plot that reads "and then", "and then", "and then" with no direction apparently isn't enough to keep me conscious for an hour and a half.
The story is hardly a story, and the actors don't seem to know what to do with it. The dialogue is contrived to a Wildean level, which could be a good thing, but only Greta Gerwig seems to be able to handle it. She delivers every bizarre, perfectly constructed sentence with precision and possibly-crazy conviction, and she's always fun to watch. Everyone else seems to think they're supposed to be winking at the camera, which doesn't work. Aubrey Plaza tries hard, but even she's wasted.
This movie is like Clueless if it were remade as a bad Wes Anderson movie. It's Clueless plus Metropolitan with most of the good parts taken out. Glad you're back, Whit Stillman! Please make a better movie next time!
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