September 15, 2013

The Last Days of Disco

The Last Days of Disco (1998) is such a strange movie, a movie about how the night can take on a life of its own, and how that which is sexy at twelve midnight is pretty pathetic at twelve noon.  It has writer-director Whit Stillman's signature mock-intellectual dialogue (which served him so well in Metropolitan), and a terrific soundtrack (provided you like disco music), as well as one of the best long party scenes I've ever seen, taking up the first half hour of the movie and imbibing it with a kind of fluid magic.

The characters might as well be carbon copies of those in Metropolitan. One of the actors from that movie, Chris Eigeman, even plays a thinly-veiled variation on his character from that film, and newcomers Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale could be the two main girls from it, except with different hairdos. Sevigny is understated and smart but critical, and Beckinsale embodies a kind of cattiness as her observant and opinionated friend/roommate. Together they inhabit a New York nightclub and it becomes a sort of stage to enact the drama of yuppie romance and friendship.

I liked Last Days for the same reason I loved Metropolitan: The conversations, as in Metropolitan, were generally interesting, and so other-worldly in their quasi-Victorian-ness that they left me somewhat dumbfounded and fascinated. But there was also something a bit false about Last Days of Disco. The dialogue always seems to be teetering between refreshing and ridiculous. It is rather nice to hear people talking in complete sentences and using correct grammar, but when the owner of a nightclub comments on someone's wrong usage of the past perfect tense, something feels disingenuous.

Then again, director Stillman often seems like he's toying with his characters' intelligence in the first place. He lets them get puffed up on their own sophisticatedness and then watches them become caricatures, although he doesn't completely dehumanize them. It's a lot more subtle that that. They're somewhere between soap opera and sitcom, book smart and street smart, bold and terrified. And all of these contradictions are masked by a veneer of success and confidence that we the audience can generally see through. 

The real problem with Last Days is that everything about the film feels too familiar, as if Stillman were simply unable to do anything but recycle old ideas. I think it's very likely he wanted to explore the same ideas in a slightly different context. He's too interested in these types of people--educated, privileged upper-class sophisticates--not to use them in his films. This at least makes them interesting for us, up to a point, but their intelligence often morphs into myopia, and this turns them into shallow, unappealing characters toward the end of the film.

And then of course, the fact that at some point this film is acknowledging a kind of reverence for the disco era is laughable, especially at the end when passengers on the subway begin dancing to "Love Train." Was that really such a great way to end a movie that's so self-consciously clever? It's difficult to know if the film is trying to be hip, ironic, or subversive. I think perhaps it's a combination of all three. The cast includes a lot of promising young actors including Mackenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar, Robert Sean Leonard, Jennifer Beals, Matt Ross, Tara Subkoff, and David Thornton. 114 min. ½

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