Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Movie Review: Damsels in Distress

Damsels in Distress ** ½
Directed by: Whit Stillman.
Written by: Whit Stillman.
Starring: Greta Gerwig (Violet), Carrie MacLemore (Heather), Megalyn Echikunwoke (Rose), Analeigh Tipton (Lily), Ryan Metcalf (Frank), Jermaine Crawford (Jimbo), Caitlin Fitzgerald (Priss), Zach Woods (Rick DeWolfe), Nick Blaemire (Freak Astaire), Aubrey Plaza (Depressed Debbie), Hugo Becker (Xavier), Meredith Hagner (Alice), Adam Brody (Fred Packenstacker / Charlie Walker), Billy Magnussen (Thor).

Whit Stillman became a cult figure in American Indie cinema in the 1990s, with his trilogy of young, urbanites, caught between school and the workforce and their love lives. Starting with Metropoltian (1990) and continuing with Barcelona (1996) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), all three films were witty, hilarious and insightful comedies – or at least I thought so at the time - it has been years since I have revisited any of those films (he also directed a particularly great episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, which I bring up because I love that show, and find any excuse possible to praise it). Then, for whatever reason, Stillman disappeared from the film scene for 14 years – which seems to have simply advanced his cult status. Now, finally, comes his long awaited fourth film – Damsels in Distress, which revisits much of the same terrain as his earlier films, and has the same absurd dialogue. And yet, to me it was a disappointment. Fourteen years, and this is what we get?

The film takes place at a University, that was one of the last to go from a women’s college to co-ed – and is now crawling with a bunch of idiot boys in Roman Fraternity’s. It concentrates on four women who view themselves as helping others – they volunteer at the campus Suicide Prevention Center, and date guys who are neither good looking or smart as an act of charity so that these lunkheads can improve themselves. Violet (Greta Gerwig) is their leader – supremely confident in herself in everything she says and does. Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) are her followers. And when they see Lily (Analeigh Tipton) at the new student orientation, they draft her to be their fourth. The setup recalls Heather or Mean Girls, except these girls aren’t really mean, although they certainly are elitist, even as they decry elitism (how can the fraternity’s be elitist, they ask aloud, if everyone in them are idiots that desperately need their help?). Lily doesn’t quite fit in with these girls – she wants to date good looking guys, and has two prospects – Xavier (Hugo Becker), a French grad student who shows her Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses, and has a bizarre religion, which requires even more bizarre sexual morals. Then there is Charle (Adam Brody), an older professional, who sees Lily in a bar and sends over drinks – which makes Heather dismiss him as an “player, operator type”, which while Violet agrees he may well be, she does appreciate the gesture. Drinks are, after all, expensive. And if people didn’t make such moves, would the species be able to propagate itself?

I have to admit, I hated the first 20 minutes or so of Damsels in Distress. The dialogue seemed absurd and like it was trying too hard to be funny and clever. The characters seemed one dimensional, and worse, not all that interesting. But after that first 20 minutes, I got on the wavelength of the film, and went along with its absurd comic tone, and at the very least, Damsels in Distress became a pleasant, if meandering little movie. There was at least one scene that had me laughing more than most other recent comedies – when poor, dumb, frat boy Thor admits that he doesn’t know the names of the colors – a bizarre running joke throughout the movie that was always good for a laugh. Another good running gag was all the attempted suicides by the future teachers of America jumping off the Education building – which not being a big building, simply led to a lot of people hurting their ankles.

But while I enjoyed much of the later parts of Damsels in Distress – and Stillman’s ultimate point eventually becomes evident – they film never really won me over. The moments I admired were mainly isolated incidents – a few scenes with dialogue so bizarre I couldn’t help but laugh. One of the problems is the casting, especially Greta Gerwig. I love Gerwig as an actress, who has quickly ascended in her career. But she’s ill-suited for the role of Violet. Gerwig’s strength as an actress is how natural she is – and Violet is all about pretense, and the walls she puts up to protect herself.

The characters all lie about who they are, and put on a mask to the outside world, and even to a certain extent themselves. Eventually, their lies come out in the open, but rather than mock or humiliate these characters, Stillman takes a more sympathetic view of them. They may not have “found” themselves at the end of the movie, but at least they are on their way.

Damsels in Distress marks a welcome return by Stillman, but not a very good one. He still has unique ear for dialogue that he always had, but the movie never really builds any comic momentum. Some jokes work, others do not. I’m glad Stillman is back, and I hope that we see his fifth film before 2026 – I also hope it’s better than this one.

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