Barely Staying Alive

Shane, the teenage hero of Mark Christopher's 54, wears the petulant expression of a Raphaelite cherub, and he comes complete with a halo of thick blond hair. He's played by a pretty newcomer with the exotic name Ryan Phillippe, but there's nothing exotic about the voice that comes out of him; by nature or by acting, it's convincing Jersey. Looking across the river at the Manhattan skyline in the late Seventies, Shane thinks he's looking at El Dorado. And in his case he's right.

When Shane reads in the papers about the beautiful people who frequent Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager's Studio 54 nightclub, he dreams of mingling with them. By suggesting to his friends that they might see Olivia Newton-John, he persuades them to go with him and try to get in. His friends are turned away, but owner-manager Rubell (Mike Myers) gives Shane the green light. Once he's in he's all the way in; he becomes a busboy, and before long he's a favorite of the trendy set.

In his recent The Last Days of Disco, writer-director Whit Stillman took just about the nuttiest and most daring approach imaginable to the same subject matter -- an intellectual approach. His characters sat around a disco, plainly based on Studio 54, and jawed about the sociological significance of the disco movement. There was sex, there were drugs, and there was a little tax evasion, but none of these vulgarities were where the movie's heart seemed to be. Stillman's characters didn't even dance all that much. They just talked, talked, talked, as if talking in a disco were even possible.

Dealing with the same place, period, and incidents, the young writer-director Christopher is a lot less eccentric than Stillman, so 54 is a lot less original than The Last Days of Disco -- and potentially a lot more profitable. It's just a conventional Horatio Alger rags-to-riches tale, with no sense of irony or perspective. When Shane is allowed to pass through the doors -- after Rubell has him take his shirt off -- we're left with no doubt that he's on hallowed ground. Even Moses only had to take off his shoes.

What he sees inside is supposed to be a middle-class vision of the Elysian Fields. Drugs flow freely, a couple has sex openly, celebrities such as Truman Capote and Andy Warhol populate the place. Christopher means for this to wow us; he has thoroughly bought the image of Studio 54 as a seductive paradise. If the ghost of Rubell, who died in 1989, could somehow see the film, he would probably smile; no doubt this is just the sort of legendary awe he had hoped to inspire in us unsophisticated rubes. But that doesn't necessarily mean Christopher got it right.

Besides, what we see just doesn't have the glamour it's meant to; the milieu seems quaint and square. The problem is the timidity of the directing. The ostensibly wild and crazy scenes are, in terms of shock, about on the level of the Orgy of the Golden Calf in DeMille's The Ten Commandments. That is, they don't seem like much more than a good, rowdy party.

The timidity extends to the mostly fictitious plot, with the IRS troubles that landed Rubell in jail in the Eighties treated as a background subplot. (Schrager, who's still alive to sue, is glossed over.) For instance, Rubell offers both Shane and his friend (Breckin Meyer) chances at advancement in return for sex. Both are straight, and both bolt. That doesn't seem as dramatic as the alternative, but it does seem commercially canny; it's less likely to upset the mainstream audiences this film hopes to snare.

The film is poky and banal and slovenly. If it were a clubber waiting outside Studio 54, it wouldn't get picked. But it isn't awful to sit through; the actors rescue it. Phillippe is very likable in his Candide-ish role. His scenes with Neve Campbell, as the soap opera actress he has a crush on, go nowhere, but it's neither performer's fault; the writing is hopeless. Phillippe's work with Salma Hayek as the coat-check girl and aspiring diva who befriends him has a warm sense of intimacy, and he also does well opposite Heather Matarazzo (Welcome to the Dollhouse) as his adoring, but much smarter younger sister. His best scene, though, occurs early on: Standing on the dance floor for the first time, he lets out an enthusiastic whoop at the performer onstage (the soundtrack is surprisingly tolerable, even for discophobes), sees the eye-rolling reaction among those around him, and quickly inhibits himself. He's a fast learner.

Lauren Hutton and Michael York, among others, contribute enjoyable minor roles, and Sela Ward (who as a young model was a real-life Studio 54 regular) is effective as a music exec who takes Shane and the coat-check girl under her wing. The film's real saving grace, the only remotely pressing reason to see it, is Mike Myers's turn as the ex-steakhouse manager Rubell.

There's something essentially charming about this lordly, sometimes mean-spirited jerk-schmoozer. When Rubell sentimentally tells the crowd on the dance floor that he loves them, you can see he means it absolutely -- at that moment. You can see what this club and its clientele mean to him, how they make him feel invincible.

Rubell's belief that he can openly flout the law is an honest mistake. He thinks that being beautiful puts you above the rules, which is usually correct, and that his position makes him such a beautiful person, which was incorrect. Christopher's best directorial touch comes near the end, during Rubell's homecoming party at Studio 54 after his prison term. When we see him, dressed in evening clothes, his face is in shadow. He has become the Phantom of the Disco, a powerful yet unrequited aspirant to his ideal of beauty now relegated to lurking in the dark.

What a mistake to shuffle this juicy performance to the background of the film, but this is sadly typical of 54. In the end narration, Shane gripes that the new corporate owners who took over Studio 54 after Rubell and Schrager's crash made the club "safe and boring." But that's exactly what Christopher has done to 54.

So what? The received wisdom on this film is likely to be that it fumbled a great subject. Well, no doubt it could have been far better, but is it really a such a great subject? Rubell seems to have been an amusing fellow, but he was also an ingratiating, nerdy wannabe who craved popularity; he drew his power by excluding from his club anyone who wasn't beautiful and/or rich and famous. This story is retold every day, in every high school. The fact that at Studio 54 it was done by adults doesn't, in itself, make the story an epic.

54.
Directed and written by Mark Christopher.
Starring Ryan Phillippe, Mike Myers, Salma Hayek, and Neve Campbell.

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