Monday, April 2, 2012

The Big Review: Damsels in Distress

I enjoy Whit Stillman's work, but man, even I had trouble with this.

This review originally appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


Buried among the half-jokes and half-measures in Damsels in Distress, there is a good movie. I know Whit Stillman, returning to the director's chair after a 14-year hiatus, could have fashioned a sharp satire on sexual politics, college life, or young adult idealism. How I wish he had. Instead, he stiff-arms us with coyness and pummels us with eloquent, shallow observations: think Jerry Seinfeld if The New Yorker was his lone source material. You feel insulted, patronized. Mostly, you feel gypped—the movie feels woefully incomplete.

The action, such as it is, unfolds at the fictional, fancy-pants Seven Oaks College, where even the fraternity knobs wear shirts and ties. It looks like a swell place for aspiring politicians and future tax felons to graduate, but three well-dressed, attractive friends (Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Carrie MacLemore) think otherwise. The student body is depressed; the sluggish male population smells terrible. The ladies do their part, advising troubled classmates at the suicide prevention center to tap dance and to find a "good-smelling environment." They assist Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a doe-eyed, willowy transfer student who probably gets enough help already.

Violet (Gerwig), who dresses like she's attending lunch with the Kennedys and talks like a 1930s etiquette book, is the clear ringleader. Violet is a dynamo until her lunkhead boyfriend, Frank (Ryan Metcalf, a daft delight), dumps her for a girl (Caitlin Fitzgerald) she saved from romantic despair. Violet leaves campus in the throes of a self-described "tailspin," but returns re-energized, but shaky. After all, who else is going to start an international dance craze or distribute bars of soap to the unwashed brutes?

When Violet returns, Stillman leaves earth. Damsels in Distress has oodles of potential. Clueless campus do-gooder faces a world defined by political correctness and caution? Sounds like a sharper, worldlier Legally Blonde. Stillman, who also wrote and produced, lets Gerwig act as if she's following Judy Garland's pill regimen. The movie crumbles into a series of asides that kind of, not really orbits around two unappealing things: Violet and the obnoxious sheltered lives of college students. Look how arrogant the editor (Zach Woods) of the school newspaper is. Isn't it ironic how agonized students jump from the second floor of a college building, which is too low to kill but just high enough to maim? Parents become so determined to brand their kids as "precocious" that the progeny—literally—never learn colors. Few of these observations are funny. And none connect to each other or to the movie as a whole, whatever (or wherever) that is.

Seeing Gerwig, terrific in Greenberg and in that pointless Arthur remake, get neglected is almost tortuous. At least she's not alone. Every character gets lost in Stillman's intellectual splatter art. If they're not the butt of a joke, a pointless, interminable subplot sweeps them away. The unlucky Tipton (Crazy, Stupid, Love.) is subjected to both. Lily pines for an attached, arty graduate student named Xavier (Hugo Becker). When Lily and Xavier finally get together, it's only for Stillman to espouse how religion (in this case, Caharism) can be twisted into what the follower wants it to be. Before hooking up with Xavier, she circles around "playboy-operator" Fred (Adam Brody), who's in "strategic development." But hold on, he's really Charlie, a permanent student, to whom Violet, that determined fixer-upper, takes a shine. Of course, Fred/Charlie serves a grater purpose. He offers an opinion on how homosexuality was more refined when it was forbidden. "Now," he says, "it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts."

Stillman's first two films (1990's Metropolitan and 1994's Barcelona) found him profiling the affluent intellectual sect in a simple, dryly humorous way. It was like reading an article about tap-dancing coal miners or some other unfamiliar but fascinating coterie. The Last Days of Disco (1998) was epic by comparison—Dancing on the NYC subway! Actors we actually recognize!— but it felt unwieldy and smug. About that movie, Michael J. Nelson wrote that Stillman was "satirizing a group of people recognizable to the eight people being satirized." With Damsels in Distress, Stillman is hopelessly absorbed in his own world, where every line is an inside joke, every character a font of sly wisdom. He's clearly enjoying himself. I doubt anyone else is. [PG-13]

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