Wednesday, April 11, 2012
The Last Days of Disco Movie Review
For his third feature film The Last Days of Disco, Whit Stillman graduated to better financing and a bigger budget, but maintained his unique writing style and characterization depicting the “Urban haute bourgeoisie” of his first film Metropolitan. Again the characters are well-educated Ivy Leaguers and New England liberal arts college graduates who spend a lot of time talking. Stillman’s Barcelona brought these characters to another country, but this time he brought them back to New York City, where the well-to-do of that first film paraded around in tuxedos and ball gowns discussing philosophy, literature and social mores. The setting has changed slightly with the characters frequenting the dying disco scene of the early 80s, but the conversations are similar.
Stillman’s writing style hadn’t really changed a lick from film to film. His characters still speak to each other with an erudite vocabulary, showing off their expensive educations in the humanities. The main difference between this and his first two films is that it feels more professionally made. But that’s just surface stuff. The substance is what matters. Sure, he brought on some more well-known faces to give life to his dialogue. Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, both of whom had done a handful of things prior to The Last Days of Disco and then used it as a launching board to bigger projects, plays Charlotte and Alice. They are the closest thing the film has to protagonists. They are college friends (although we discover they weren’t really friends and actually Charlotte was undermining Alice’s chances with men all the time) who now work together for a publishing company and are about to move into an apartment together – one that will be heavily subsidized by mommy and daddy.
Together they go out on the weekends to a disco where they meet other members of their socio-economic stratum. Alice is attracted to Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), who works in advertising and is persona non grata at the club as far as the doorman and owner are concerned. But he’s an old college friend of Des (Stillman regular Chris Eigeman), a club manager who lets him in the back door with clients. The animosity toward Jimmy and his profession is all part and parcel of Stillman’s examination of class differences between the bourgeois and those who think of themselves as working class or at least standing up for the working class. At the end of the day, even those who reject the whole idea of making money as somehow inherently evil are revealed to be embezzling tax evaders sending sacks of cash to Switzerland. Des discovers this and becomes an unwitting participant in an investigation spearheaded by another college friend, Josh (Matt Keeslar), the city’s Assistant D.A.
Alice and Charlotte could hardly be more different and seem to be friends only because they went to the same college and work in the same office. Alice is demure and with some sense that she could be different from the crowd, although she’s anxious to prove she can be a sexual predator when she goes home with Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), a young man she meets at the club. Charlotte is outspoken and judgmental and is overly concerned with others’ impressions of her and her status. She wants the appearance of the New York City single girl life, sharing an old style railroad apartment with friends (their less well-off co-worker Dan points out that they were originally built as tenements for the working class, but have been taken over by yuppies), all while footing the bill out of her parents’ bank account. Charlotte can be downright nasty, but I’m sure she doesn’t think of herself that way (who does?). She comes across as a bitch because she thinks she has to point out everyone’s faults and flaunt her own grandeur. She thinks this is a helpful way to behave when in fact it isn’t.
Like Stillman’s other two films, the interest lies not so much in what his characters do but in what they say. Yes, like Barcelona he throws in a little bit of commentary on the socio-political scene of the day by including footage of disco records being blown up by legions of hard rock and metal fans. And the club the characters frequent is an obvious stand in for Studio 54, whose owners were also found to be skimming off the top in an effort to evade taxes. All this is just to signal the changing attitudes transitioning from the freewheeling disco era to the more conservative Reagan years. The sea change eventually arrives (one character firmly declares that disco is dead in the last scene) along with the completion of the characters’ arcs. And this is one of Stillman’s greatest and perhaps most unrecognized traits as a writer. His characters always come out the other end of his films changed and, in most cases, better people, helping elevate the somewhat inaccessible intellectualism to a story of real people that anyone can relate to.