If there were a director who concentrated solely on depicting the social mores of walleyed mung-bean farmers, he couldn’t have chosen a more specialized subgroup than has Whit Stillman, the documenter of that vanishing species, Preppus Americanus.
Surely Stillman’s late-blooming debutantes and the arrogant young achievers they run with exist, possibly even in New York City, his chosen milieu. But there are no checks and balances system in the film world, so we’ll have to take the sole proprietor’s word for it that they act the way he says they do. And if that’s trueif there is a species of insulated, privileged American youths who speak in wry codicils and whose deep-seated sense of absolute material and romantic entitlement means they’ve never questioned whether their troubles/ conversations/aspirations are worthy or even interestingwell, it’s mighty ballsy of him to ask for eight bucks a peep.
In this third, chronologically middle section of Stillman’s preppie trilogy (or “triptych” as he calls it, betraying the slight condescension of the gentleman student with an art-history elective behind him), the director follows a clutch of college graduates as they try to get their grown-up bearings in New York in the “very early ’80s.” A loose grouping of friends, roommates, and colleagues hits the club of the momentan unnamed but pretty obvious Studio 54while sorting out their true allegiances and struggling for autonomy.
The Last Days of Disco doesn’t quite fill in the gap between the charming Metropolitan and the execrable Barcelona, but it does explain why the second movements of this one-note symphony are such a bore: Metropolitan depicted preppies in their natural habitat, where the right tuxedo rental shop and dark Sag Harbor secrets are aspects of the intricate convolutions of adult sexuality that hit these coddled nymphs fresh out of the cocoon in their late teens. But when Stillman shows these same self-absorbed aristocrats breathing less rarefied air, their mental and emotional state is too pretentious and confining to sustain our patience; if he’s going to show us the normal world, we’d rather see normal people in it.
Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chloë Sevigny) are two not-very-close friends from Hampshire College who work as readers in a cutthroat book-publishing office. Dark-haired, rapacious Charlotte schemes to approve a best seller, whatever its literary quality, and make assistant editor. Repressed Alice tags along in her powerful wake, absorbing Charlotte’s “improving” admonishments and large doses of poisonous “honesty””I really hated you in college” being only one of the unlovely offloadings dumped by her ostensible friend, along with the many reasons why everyone else hated her in college, and why she never got any dates.
Charlotte is so completely unpleasant and Alice so passive that it should be a relief when they meet with a dynamic group of slightly older Harvard men. But because Stillman has a taste for smooth, dark boys of middling height, it’s impossible to tell them apart in the dark confines of the club or the cabs they inhabit. Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) is an advertising agent who tries to hustle his aging, thrill-seeking clients into the club; Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) is a corporate lawyer who collects original Scrooge McDuck comics; Des (Chris Eigeman) is a club manager and womanizer with an interesting technique for dumping girlfriends when they get pesky; and Josh (Matt Keeslar) is an assistant D.A. who repeatedly sings the praises of the discotheque as cultural artifact without seeming to actually enjoy himself.
Packed loosely around the real-life raid that exposed Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell’s maggoty financial-accounts system, The Last Days of Disco documents this group’s careless internecine betrayals as it builds to the big intrusion that will cut off their carousing for good (whereupon the men will move to Barcelona to make fools of themselves in two languages). It’s clear that these days are only a phase for the group; the women will marry the corporate lawyers they covet, and the men will help destroy the economy with junk bonds and planned procreation. Never again will they face threats to their post-college/pre-real life supremacyradical feminism, which they eloquently loathe, and unwashed, anti-yuppie punk rockers who prod them to defend yuppies stoutly and ridiculously while denying participation in the yuppie values system.
For contrast, and to assure us of where his own allegiance lies, Stillman throws in the work-shirted would-be radical Dan (Matt Ross) to spout the people’s anti-decadence rhetoric and mock the girls for their God-given social status before showing himself for the hypocrite he is. If there is any doubt that the preppies’ selfish infighting and name-dropping is not supposed to be alienating but endearing, it evaporates when Dan is revealed to be a lousy dancer and shallow date.
Stillman’s relentless mythologizing of his characters’ smug, suffocating insularity and tiny, materialistic aspirations engenders small interest even on an anthropological level. Because they know so little about what top-of-the-line night life is supposed to be, they don’t bump up against what’s most interesting about the waning days of Studiothat it began to let in people like themselves, that its power was dissipated by the establishment of hotter clubs like Xenon. They’re not even impressed by the vestiges of cool still on display or disappointed by their inability to penetrate the club’s inner core. This club has single-sex bathrooms, minimal drug use, and no VIP room to speak of; it’s just another place for the crew to obliviously carry out their sad little back-stabbings and ego games.
In fact, it was the very ascendancy of hot spots like Studio that replaced Social Register elitism with a more democratic, if just as rigorous, elitism of style. Modeling yourself after Fitzgerald heroes and exploiting the lucky accident of your birthright got you a cup of coffee in the early ’80s, providing you also had a dollar. Stillman claims, as do his characters, that The Last Days of Disco is a portrait of group dynamics, strenuously against “all that ferocious pairing off.” But his characters don’t pair off because they’re terrified of sexindeed, sex either is grubby and cheap or carries a punishment right out of educational hygiene films. This nasty, self-satisfied coterie is together because no one else can understand them; there’s no elasticity to their common bond the way, say, Swingers depicted it. In a world of target-marketed movies, The Last Days of Disco is aimed at a very small audience: anyone who uses “summer” as a verb.
Rap star and entrepreneur Master P’s vanity production I Got the Hookup is stupid, foul-mouthed, and full of repellent stereotypes. At some level he must know as much, since his portrayal of a sensitive but scheming ladies’ man is the most decent thing in iteveryone else is a straight-up cartoon from the White Devil handbook: the big-butt, round-the-way girl who allows herself to be turned out by a repairman/pimpmaster, the porch-sitting old folk who talk scorching filth for laughs, the gorgeous girlfriend with the middle-class job who’s a not-so-secret freak with an arsenal of kinky accessories available at the touch of a button, the fast-talking, gold-chain-wearing fencer of stolen goods.
That fence would be Blue (A.J. Johnson), and Master P plays Black; they are partners in a back-of-the-van resale operation who luck into a truckload of cellular phones mistakenly delivered by a clueless, frightened white guy. The indifferently hooked-up phones start breaking down and finally broadcast the private big-money deal of community hood Roscoe. While Roscoe’s henchmen try to track down Black and Blue, they run for protection to the freaky sexpot (Gretchen Palmer), who works at Cellular Two’s office, and get roughed up by policemen who aren’t what they seem. A very weird running joke about white men wearing black masks had the packed screening audience crying a collective “What?!” and echoes of the word “stupid” resounded as we shuffled into the lighted theater lobby.CP