Boogie Slights

Most people associate the disco era with hedonism, homosexuality, a sense of community, tacky fashions, and awful music. But in his new The Last Days of Disco, writer-director Whit Stillman imagines the era as merely a singles bar for romantics in search of soulmates, mostly heterosexual and hardly debauchees. The clothes and the music seem pretty cool, too. Floating through the film are two beautiful if strikingly different women, surrounded by a host of look-alike, act-alike, sound-alike men.

With this movie, his third, Stillman comes of age as the WASP Eric Rohmer, with a world view at once so blinkered and benign that clubs full of transvestites and cokeheads come across as preppy and chaste. Characters from Stillman's other films, the similarly themed Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994), return as well, revealing Stillman as a creator of his own fictional universe, the Joyce or Faulkner of young urban professionals. His disco era is cleaned up and rendered safe for Republicans. He takes on something of the character of George Will crossed with George Bush: a sharp wit swaddled in a blanket of fuzzy niceness from a better era not so long ago. All this would be fine if Stillman were a skillful storyteller; as it is, however, the film is plagued with confusion about characters' motives, transformations, and even identity. It's a sharp disappointment after the varied pleasures of his earlier work.

If nothing else, this film proves that witty dialogue -- even lots of witty dialogue -- can take you only so far. Abundant hilarious riffs on everything from Scrooge McDuck comics to Julius Caesar lose their effectiveness when you can't tell who's speaking. Other filmmakers who specialized in barbed chatter -- Joseph Mankiewicz and Preston Sturges, to cite just two -- fashioned distinct characters, ones who looked and acted very different from each other. But Stillman's interest lies in creating not individuals but a collective identity: the young and the mostly privileged of the Eighties. Harvard grad Stillman has the type down cold. That wins him points as an anthropologist, but his failure to differentiate the roles played by prepster actors MacKenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar, and Robert Sean Leonard merely confounds. One's a lawyer, another works in advertising, but they're all indistinguishable. The exception is Stillman regular Chris Eigeman, who claims to be gay after feeling attracted to someone on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. The filmmaker doesn't do anything with this thread, however, despite the connection of homosexuals to the disco era.

Instead, the film concentrates on the women played by Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, sweet (Sevigny) and snippy (Beckinsale) New York City roommates who socialize at a Studio 54-like disco. As an idealistic book editor, Sevigny displays the same calm in the midst of boho chaos that made her the most interesting character in her previous films, Kids and Trees Lounge. She has plenty here to make her look thoughtful; as was the case in her prior efforts, she's paired off with an unworthy man. (A particularly nasty plot device of Kids echoes in Disco; in sexual matters, Stillman emphasizes the horrors of humiliation rather than the pleasures of the flesh.)

Beckinsale (Cold Comfort Farm, Shooting Fish) is developing a screen persona at once arrogant and funny. A woman who can kill with her looks but prefers to use her tongue, she'd be the perfect choice for a new Dorothy Parker biopic. But Stillman never explores her character's evident neuroses. About 40 minutes into the film, her behavior toward Sevigny becomes so outrageously rude it's hard to see how they could possibly remain on speaking terms. This is only one of many unexplained ellipses in the plot, which with its multitude of characters acting at cross-purposes erodes from an amusing look back at a lost world into a blurry Polaroid. Several announce major changes in their lives, but when we see them next, nothing has happened, or radical changes have occurred off camera. We hear about a sharp U-turn in Sevigny's character only near the end of the film.

Given that much of the action takes place in a disco's glittery, cavernous space, cinematographer John Thomas does a marvelous job of keeping the film's appearance bright. The Last Days of Disco's even look matches Stillman's even keel as a filmmaker, boding well for his career only if he can find material suited to his comfortable, prep-school wit. This wrenching, life-transforming period deserves a more discerning eye.

The Last Days of Disco.
Directed and written by Whit Stillman. Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman, MacKenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar, and Robert Sean Leonard.

 
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