I should cut Whit Stillman some slack. He got his start as a feature filmmaker at age 38 with the acclaimed Metropolitan (1990)—the right time to look backwards with a sharpened pen at the status, conduct, and mating rituals of the young “urban haute bourgeoisie” who interest him. The movie got great reviews, received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, and just didn’t do much for me, despite my appreciation for carefully crafted comedies of manners. The same goes for 1994’s cross-cultural Barcelona.
We’re both mixed on The Last Days of Disco (1998). It was his most expensive film, with a longer shooting schedule but correspondingly greater angst as the budget tightened. He based it on his own clubbing in the early ’80s, and came to regret recreating those experiences in Jersey City, NJ’s palatial, then-disused Loew’s movie theater, a big space that swallowed extras and production design and distracted him from his usual minimalist aesthetic. Worse, the distributor, smelling a trend in the air, played up the “disco” angle and hustled it into theaters. Remember that same summer’s 54, with Mike Myers as Studio 54 impresario Steve Rubell? Didn’t think so. Disco, and Disco, were dead.
Courtesy of a typically enticing Criterion Collection re-release, with lovely cover art, The Last Days of Disco is back on the dance floor. If Stillman had a more commercial sensibility, it might have been a mirror-balled predecessor to Sex and the City, which also debuted that year. Its protagonists are two editorial assistants, Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), who live in a railroad apartment not far from my bachelor digs in the unhip neighborhood of Yorkville. Thanks to subsidies from their unseen parents, they trip the night fantastic at New York’s hottest disco, the Club. The modest Alice communicates through glances and slight changes of expression, which Sevigny excels at. Charlotte, on the other hand, is an “incurably compulsive” (but excusably beautiful) truth-teller, smashing through the Club with every utterance, something Beckinsale does with lethal ease (it’s good to see her again in smaller, more substantive films like Snow Angels and Nothing But the Truth after her vampy Hollywood run following this one). Also making the scene are Club manager Des (Stillman veteran Chris Eigeman), who pretends to be gay when the women he sleeps with (including the iconic Jennifer Beals and “Tiger Lady” Jaid Barrymore, Drew’s tabloid mom) get too close, the upwardly mobile advertising grunt Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), and Josh (Matt Keeslar), a bipolar assistant district attorney investigating the Club for various illegal activities when not expressing strong opinions on the sexism of Lady and the Tramp. Robert Sean Leonard also crosses the velvet rope, before the apex of his Broadway career and House, as do Metropolitan and Barcelona castmembers.
It’s the little bits (like the Tramp smackdown, Keeslar’s summing up of the disco era, Eigeman’s questioning the wisdom of Shakespeare’s “to thine own self be true,” and an unlikely character asking “Why are you using the past perfect?” in an interrogation scene) that highlight Disco, which otherwise checklists the excesses of the era (the snobbery, the sex and drugs, the criminality) without putting them at the center. While I agree with Stillman’s chat track comment that the title is a good one, it’s misapplied to his movie, which is more about the difficulty of outgrowing your friends and finding new relationships amidst changing times. To Stillman’s credit, whom Alice and Charlotte will pair off with isn’t easy to guess; on the other hand, the artificiality of the film’s style makes it difficult to care. His cinematic children, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, adopt a similar tone, but at their best dig more messily into emotions. (The songs, which have an undying appeal, give the movie some drive.)
More engaging is the disc’s commentary track, where Stillman, who studs his talk with gossipy blind items (Which actor was endlessly difficult? Which was replaced?), is joined by Sevigny (who auditioned with a hangover, and is embarrassed by her dancing) and Eigeman (who discusses his and Stillman’s reluctance to cast him in “the Eigeman part,” which Ben Affleck almost played). Additional extras include the disco-heavy trailer, deleted scenes, a bland EPK-type featurette, and a set of stills with more revealing captions by Stillman. He also reads the epilogue from his 2000 book “The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards,” which serves as a sort of sequel to the film. Stillman hasn’t made a movie since. But I’m willing to have the next dance.
Buy The Last Days of Disco (Criterion Collection) at Amazon on standard DVD.
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