Stillman’s wit falls flat in mistimed coed comedy ‘Damsels In Distress’
If cult filmmaker Whit Stillman hadn’t already made Metropolitan back in 1990 … well, let’s face it, his new film, Damsels In Distress would still be a mess. The talky cast of Manhattan debs and preppies trying to navigate the shoals of life and the first glimmerings of potential romance in the earlier film might have been a vapid and self-absorbed group, but Stillman’s ironic wit was generally keen, dry, and entertaining.
Damsels is not exactly a remake, although Stillman is returning to the hermetically sealed never-never land of an East Coast Ivy League school (after venturing out into the corporate and nightclub worlds in his intermediate films, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco). But Stillman’s sense of irony and purpose, let alone pacing, have not sharpened in the intervening 20-plus years; the characters in Damsels are even more pretentious, obnoxious and ultimately clueless, their talk is twice as mannered and artificial, the comic timing is completely off, and the dialogue is rarely witty, it’s just peculiar.
On the first day of the new term at pastoral (and fictional) Seven Oaks College, relatively normal sophomore transfer student, Lily (a likable Analeigh Tipton) is pounced upon by a kind of genteel girl gang trolling for recruits. Their leader is Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig), a self-satisfied junior who pontificates strenuously on all sorts of matters, from correct verbiage, to the wisdom of dating an “inferior” guy as opposed to setting oneself up for disappointment by pursuing someone “cool.”
Seven Oaks has only recently gone coed, and Violet and her floral-named henchwomen, sweet Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and sarcastic Rose (a funny Megalyn Echikuwoke) haven’t quite figured out male-female relations. In their throwback little dresses and coiffed hair, they squeal and hold their noses when sweaty jocks from the athletic frat house trot by. (“Nasal shock,” they call it.) Rose suspects every male of “playboy, operator moves,” while Violet follows her own advice and sees Frank (Ryan Metcalf), a genial idiot who doesn’t know his own eye color—although he seems like a genius next to his similarly overprivileged, intellectually under-endowed frat mate, Thor (Billy Magnussen), who hasn’t learned colors at all.
Naturally, with her vast empathy and experience, Violet and her team run the campus Suicide Prevention Center, dispensing doughnuts, criticizing visitors’ nicknames, and teaching the depressed to tap dance (badly). “Boyfriends are a suicide risk,” Violet warns Lily, but Lily dates a couple anyway: a French graduate student (Hugo Becker) who goes in for the “non-procreative” sex of the ancient Cathars, and an undergrad (Adam Brody) with a mysterious double life—to whom Violet is also attracted.
Not to imply that there’s any kind of dramatic tension, much less plot going on here. Ninety percent of the movie is people wandering around campus, or sitting in dorm rooms or getting coffee or a drink (it’s certainly not like anybody ever goes to class) making strange observations about only marginally interesting subjects. If the talk was funny, the absence of storyline or the cluelessness of the characters, or the precious stylization of it all wouldn’t matter so much, and, indeed, there are a few random moments. (The deadpan wisecracks of Echikuwoke’s Rose, for instance, gain comic momentum as the film progresses.)
But most of the time, the humor is flat and mistimed. On two separate occasions, a gag depends on one person repeating the same question three times—each time more s-l-o-w-l-y—while another person doggedly fails to grasp their meaning. (This device is belabored the first time; twice, it’s deadly.) The tap dance production number that concludes the film isn’t jubilant or fresh, or charmingly corny, it’s just weird. If Stillman is setting up deliberately silly, unrealistic characters in order to satirize them, what’s the point? If, on the other hand, he intends his characters to disarm us with their cute eccentricities, it doesn’t work.
Stillman deserves kudos for persisting in making films that are distinctly his, and working far outside the financial and marketing support group of the mainstream studio system. But he needs to get out more, turn his camera eye outward on recognizably real people with real issues, and move on from the kind of precious navel-gazing that makes Damsels so distressing.
★★ (out of four)
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With Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, and Adam Brody. Written and directed by Whit Stillman. A Sony Classics release. Rated PG-13. 99 minutes.