Friday, April 6, 2012

Overlooked Gems #28: Metropolitan

Grade: 95 (A)

Whit Stillman’s new film Damsels in Distress comes out this weekend, and for many it’s a welcome return for one of the most original and influential comedic filmmakers of his generation. Stillman made a big splash in the 90s with his “yuppie trilogy” of Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, before disappearing for over a decade. His droll, incisive, self-critical, and ultimately empathetic portrayal of upper-class Manhattanites influences the films of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, filmmakers who have emulated his films’ best qualities while putting their own unique take on it (whereas too many modern indie filmmakers take the quirk and inherent pretensions of said characters without extending any understanding or warmth). Stillman’s absence has led to a diminished recognition among film circles, and so a revisit to his debut film Metropolitan is in order.

Princeton undergraduate Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) is a middle class young man with admiration for obscure socialist Charles Fourier and a dislike for bourgeois parties and skepticism for upper-class values. Over the Christmas break of his first year of college, he falls in, seemingly by chance, with a group of upper-class young socialites. Among the group Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), a young debutante who takes an immediate liking to Tom; Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman), a Harvard cynic who grooms Tom as “one of them”; and Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), a bourgeois-philosopher who loves Audrey and is suspicious of Tom. At first, Tom goes only because he was invited and has little else to do, but he bonds with Nick and develops a deep respect for Audrey despite his infatuation with ex-girlfriend Serena (Ellia Thompson), who’s dating the pompous, questionably-valued Rick (Will Kempe).

Much has been said about Stillman’s terrific, witty dialogue (his screenplay for Metropolitan was Oscar-nominated, although it lost, ludicrously, to Ghost), but his skill as a filmmaker with a strong sense of visual storytelling is underrated. Stillman frames Tom as an outsider amongst a strange and often beautiful world only to have him slowly grow closer (in both proximity and emotional attachment) to his new group of friends. When the group gets together to play a “dangerous” game of Truth (not Truth or Dare, just Truth), he puts Audrey in the middle of her two ostensible love interests, Tom and Charlie. Charlie fights for Audrey, who doesn’t want to play, but she’ll play if it gives her a chance to be closer to Tom. When Nick later reveals that he made up a nasty story about another character, he’s filmed alone, as opposed to the reverse-perspective of an entire room against him. Too many independent filmmakers believe their dialogue can carry their film (often it doesn’t even stand well on its own), but Stillman shows an understand on how to use a visual medium.

Stillman’s grasp of how these people talk cannot be understated, however- he grew up in the world of the upper-class New Yorkers as a child of divorce (like Tom), living with his less well-to-do mother. He understands Tom’s alienation, but he also sympathizes with a group of young people with high social expectations- anything they do that’s less than spectacular will be deemed a “failure”. Stillman doesn’t hide the hypocrisies of the self-described “urban haute bourgeoisie”- they’re vain, they criticize books they haven’t read, they knock snobbery while being snobs of their own kind, they criticize a social structure that benefits them, and they display the same flaws as the people they dislike. But they’re not stupid, the actors who play them are intelligent enough to handle the dialogue (particularly the hilariously cynical Eigeman and the warm-hearted Farina), and in a world of independent films filled with smugness, that’s what counts.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

No comments:

Post a Comment