The Last Days of Disco (1998, dir. Whit Stillman)
Starring Chloe Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, Mackenzie Astin, Chris Eigeman, Tara Subkoff, Matt Keeslar, Jennifer Beals
If watching the burgeoning yuppies of early 1980s Manhattan sitting around vapidly waxing philosophic about the inanities of their lives doesn’t sound appealing to you then you may want to skip this film. Despite its title its not at all about disco really. Its about a generation of people who came of age in the 1970s and are focused on self-gratification and the hierarchies and status related to social life in New York. Another of way of looking at it, and how director Whit Stillman was thinking when he made the film, is that this is contemporary take on the comedy of manners genre.
The protagonists of the film are Alice (Sevigny), a recent college grad and an assistant publishing editor and Des (Eigeman), the employee of a disco club which bears a more than passing resemblance to Studio 54. Alice balances a tenuous friendship with snarky roommate Charlotte (Beckinsale) and ending up in awkward social situations with immature men. One of these men is a manic-depressive FBI agent (Keeslar) who becomes a part of a sting on Des’ nightclub which has been funneling cash to a Swiss bank account and failing to report millions the IRS. The characters meander through the film, talking in a completely artificial manner and nothing really seems to happen.
It’s apparent that Stillman’s work (Metropolitan, Barcelona) had a profound impact on the filmmaking of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Stillman’s characters aren’t so much people as they are roughly painted facsimiles of humans who carry on in conversations peppered with Tarantino-esque pop culture references. One character explains that the reason why so many of his own generation are environmentalists is because of the 1958 re-release of Bambi in theaters. Another conversation involves how Lady and the Tramp teaches women to pursue the bad boy and is at fault for a multitude of bad relationships in their generation.
The characters are dull as hell though. They barely even qualify as characters, as Stillman loves introducing a new and even quirkier one as the film progresses. Yet we get nothing past their surface eccentricities and Stillman struggles to manage any sense of a narrative. He tries to create a partial drama with the illegal business practices of the nightclub but even when the arrests go down all parties involved seem aloof and uninterested. The first hour of the film has potential but the second goes off the rails and becomes a chore to wade through. Much like the decade it highlights the start of, its incredibly shallow with nothing to really say.