Whit Stillman in DistressMay 9th, 2012 | By Budd | Category: Entertainment
At intervals throughout the 1990s, writer-director Whit Stillman quietly unveiled the loose trilogy Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998). Chronicling the lives and loves of the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” a hitherto little-known species Stillman anatomized with equal measures earnest identification and affable chastisement, these low-key films were filled with dazzling displays of verbal dexterity, a kind of sophisticated, literate humor that had few peers in the world of independent filmmaking. (Critics often fell back on the likes of P. G. Wodehouse’s genteel novels when casting around for analogues and precedents.) In other words, Whit Stillman made films like nobody else.
After an absence of almost 15 years, Stillman returns with the daft campus comedy Damsels in Distress. Its very title indicates the film’s anachronistic aspirations: a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking, only projected through the prismatic lens of today’s twee-heavy indie paradigm (the worst trait uniting films like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno). However akin Damsels feels to his earlier films, albeit in mostly superficial ways, it’s my sad duty to report that Stillman’s latest is nearly universal in its failure. The comedy is often painfully unfunny, at best droll or wryly amusing when a gag does work, its conceits so packed with self-aware whimsy that the film ends up swallowing its own tail and choking on it.
At Seven Oaks College, a trio of flowery-named femmes led by Violet Wister (mumblecore maven Greta Gerwig) swoops in on newcomer Lily (Analeigh Tipton) during student orientation. Violet has developed her own wonky code of conduct, a combination of smarmy self-fabrication (hence the floral names) and supercilious condescension (dating inferiors of the opposite sex under the guise of reclamation projects), and she’s looking to indoctrinate Lily. The girls’ ersatz philanthropy extends to volunteering at the campus suicide prevention center, where they believe donuts are the first step to total recovery, and there’s no depression so deep that therapeutic tap dance routines won’t work wonders. Their services may even be necessary, given the spate of attempted suicides coming from the Ed School, where misguided saps continually fail to snuff it after jumping from the second story, a situation that leads to the film’s funniest line: “If they can’t even destroy themselves properly, how can we expect them to shape our nation’s youth?”
True to the perverse strand of reverse psychology that runs rampant throughout the film, Lily ultimately emerges as its lone individualist, even as she counter-intuitively preaches conformity and normalcy. But it’s the inmates who have taken over this particular asylum, and, true to form, the film ends with an extended song-and-dance routine that plays like a discarded outtake from Everybody Says I Love You. As if that weren’t quite farcical enough, Stillman indulges in end credits faux-footnotes that “correct” some of Violet’s more egregious factual errors, a po-mo gesture better suited to David Foster Wallace’s brand of meta-fiction than Stillman’s rarefied but essentially realist sort of cinema. You can’t fault the filmmaker for wanting to branch out, trying to experiment a bit with form and content, but you certainly can wish he’d chosen more rewarding trends to emulate.
Budd Wilkins is a writer, film reviewer, instructor, and staff critic for Slant Magazine. Follow Budd on his blog at www.buddwilkins.com.