Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Metropolitan Movie Review

On the cinematic evolutionary line after Woody Allen but before Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach is Whit Stillman. He wrote and directed three films all released in the 90s and then disappeared for 13 years (his fourth film, Damsels in Distress opens this month). As a writer he stands tall among the giants of literate screenplays written by, for, and about educated people. His characters are often reflections of his own upbringing in a world of upper class privilege and Ivy League education. His stories explore issues such as social group dynamics versus coupling, distinctions between social classes, and conservative political values. He’s a writer unafraid to give his characters interesting things to say and have them sound intelligent. If you find yourself occasionally lost, it’s quite possibly because the conversation is centered on something outside your experience.

His movies are not designed to be pleasing to all people. It’s very likely they play well to a niche crowd of people (like myself) who went to private liberal arts colleges and prestigious universities and fancy ourselves overly educated with endlessly fascinating things to say on myriad subjects. Perhaps part of the reason I enjoy Stillman’s movies so much is that I recognize in his characters people I knew at college. They are nothing like me, but that isn’t to say I’d be entirely averse to being one of them. Stillman doesn’t employ the same self-deprecating humor and whiny narcissism that has been Woody Allen’s hallmark, but that his films rely heavily on New York intellectuals seems to automatically put them in the same league. He could be the Park Avenue Woody Allen.

Stillman’s first film Metropolitan was released in 1990. It's a comedy of manners whose setting is New York during Christmas break of an unspecified year sometime in the 1980s. It’s based primarily on Stillman’s own experiences living in Washington, D.C., going to debutante balls and the late night after parties, and cavorting with wealthy college students. The characters are mostly Ivy Leaguers home for the “deb ball” season during their freshman year. They are friends by virtue of their status and upper class status, but not necessarily from going to high school (sorry, prep school) together. The group gives entrance to their inner circle to Tom (Edward Clements), a Princeton student who isn’t quite in the same class with them. He has to rent his tuxedo for the first ball and then keeps getting invited back. Tom is not only an outsider in terms of his family’s bank account balance, but also for his following of the philosopher Charles Fourier and his adherence to more socialist principles and the idea that one doesn’t need to read a novel to comment on it so long as he’s read enough criticism of the novel. He is the counterpoint to the wealthy conservative capitalists that make up the group. These are people I knew at college, although at the small liberal arts college I attended my wealthy classmates were more frustrated than these people because they didn’t get into the Ivy League.

The other young men in the group are Charlie (Taylor Nichols), Nick (Chris Eigeman), and Fred (Bryan Leder). Charlie is the biggest thinker in the group, an intellectual philosopher who tends to lead group discussions regarding social values and group dynamics. He strives to redefine their generation’s signifier in light of what he sees as the inevitable failure in the future to maintain their status. No longer satisfied with terms like preppie (which should apply exclusively to high school and in some cases college students) and WASP, he renames his ilk the UHBs (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie) and proceeds to use the acronym in conversation as if it’s a thing that others will be aware of. He lacks some understanding of how the zeitgeist works. Nick is a charming and dashing if self-important cynic who won’t stop at inventing a false story to support his bad opinions of a rival. Fred is a college graduate and possibly an alcoholic who mostly recedes into the background.

The women in the group are not nearly as well defined – one of the few problems with Stillman’s screenplay. Only Audrey (Carolyn Farina), the recent debutante in the group, manages to stand out. The others – Jane, Cynthia and Sally – blend together in my mind a few hours after the movie finishes. What they all have in common is the sense that they are adrift and somewhat directionless at this stage in their lives, which is not all that odd for most people their age (especially college students), whether they have money or not.

The social structure and happenings depicted in Metropolitan are so far outside the realm of not only my personal experiences but also what I know from films and television that it feels like a totally made up time and place. I have such trouble imagining that this world exists in contemporary New York society (or existed 25 years ago). With the gentlemen wearing tuxedos and the women in their ball gowns with white gloves it feels like it belongs to the old world money class of New York in the early 20th century. You expect Newland Archer to walk in and start pining away for Ellen Olenska. This world is not that far removed from theirs, but the characters are certainly more cynical. When upper crust socialites are presented in pop culture they are more often than not the subjects of ridicule and derision. That’s part of why Stillman’s film, even more than two decades later, feels refreshing. He presents these characters as real people with real feelings and relationships. Theirs are just as legitimate to themselves as those of the less well-off are to them.

Of all the performances, it is Eigeman’s and Nichols’ that resonate the most. The entire cast were amateurs at the time and the film was a low-budget indie production so there’s no shame in a cast of actors who are obviously inexperienced and occasionally give dull line readings. But watching Metropolitan it’s no surprise why Stillman chose Eigeman and Nichols for the leads in his next film and why they are the only two from this film to have even a modicum of success.

The beauty of the movie is simply in what the characters have to say to one another. It’s screenplay that takes pleasure in the spoken word. Stillman’s writing is stylized in a manner that suggests heightened naturalism. It doesn’t sound quite like the way real people talk, but you can almost imagine that there might be some people who do. 

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