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The debutante world of Whit Stillman's directorial debut comes to life - for better and for worse - on this Criterion high-def edition....
Criterion / 1990 / 98 Minutes / Rated PG-13 / Street Date: July 24, 2012
Nineteen-ninety was a good year for movies, but not a great year. Three of the top ten grossing films were Home Alone, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Kindergarten Cop. And while auteurs like Scorsese (Goodfellas), the Coen Brothers (Miller’s Crossing), and Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands) scored creative successes, there was no one filmmaker who made the aging members of the academy feel their upper crust, upper tax bracket, Upper East Side torch was going to be passed to a new generation.
Enter Wilt Stillman. The son of a Philadelphia debutante and a Washington D.C. Democratic politician, Stillman graduated from Harvard (and I ain’t talkin’ SUNY Harvard, I mean the real Harvard). Based solely on his bio, never having met the man, I bet the guy’s pinky was born wiggling in the air. And in 1990, when his multi-syllabic avalanche of erudite pronouncements spilled onto the screen in the form of Metropolitan, the academy saw in Stillman someone who’d ensure that the hermetically rich and ostentatiously well-spoken would be properly represented on film using big words you don’t hear in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
According to IMDB, Stillman wrote Metropolitan in the mid-eighties and financed the film by selling his apartment and securing handouts from friends and family. The story takes place during Christmastime in and around the airless, big money, Upper East Side apartments of rich families. We never see the wealthy people who own these palaces, nor should we. Instead, we’re dropped into the world of their children, specifically the tuxedo-and-dress wielding members of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack. Their holiday itinerary consists of debutante balls, after-debutante balls, and the late-night walks between debutante balls and after-debutante balls.
The leader of the group is Nick (Christopher Eigeman) and he presides over a tightly knit cabal of “urban haute bourgeoisie” that includes ambitious Sally Fowler herself (Dylan Hundley), opinionated Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols). and the winsome Audrey (Carolyn Farina). The finger that flicks the group ever-so-slightly off its axis belongs to Tom (Edward Clements), who fancies himself a radical compared to those around him. Originally recruited because the girls needed an extra escort to even out their numbers, Tom talks the talk (he considers himself a Fourierist), but can’t afford shoes expensive enough to walk the walk.
He’s a bit defensive about the fact that his tux is rented, he can’t afford an overcoat, and he lives with his mother, who is divorced from Tom’s father. But Tom gets along, tacitly agreeing with Nick that “Deb parties are a way of getting invited to all of the best places and being supplied with food, drink and companionship at very little cost to yourself. What could possibly be the matter with that?” Soon, Audrey develops a crush on Tom after intellectually stimulating but coldly argued discussions about Jane Austin’s Mansfield Park. (In one of the script’s cleverer lines, Tom admits to never having read Mansfield Park. He prefers to read book reviews instead of books because one short article provides everything you need to know.)
In terms of story, that’s most of it. Purposely shorn of plot, Metropolitan is purely character-driven. That being said, I didn’t like any of the characters, but I didn’t hold it against the movie, since I felt the characters didn’t particularly like themselves. It was interesting to note how our allegiance to certain characters changed throughout the course of the film. Charlie’s opinions are the most insufferably long-winded; they are delivered with the force of a young man who has just started reading Time Magazine and needs to fully articulate his opinions to anyone who’ll listen.
But by the end, he’s become the noblest character in the film. I had mixed feelings about Tom. There is much he doesn’t like about the deb world, and he picks arguments with various members. But none of that stops him from taking advantage of what’s available on the other side of Central Park. Stillman does a fantastic job wringing what he can out of his micro-budget. However, I found it ironic that a movie about incredibly rich people would look so on-the-cheap. Plus, the actors are almost uniformly average, even when you consider that they’re being asked to recite such heavy, stilted dialogue.
I think my problem with Metropolitan is that for all its references to Marxism and Jane Austin and all the smart things that smart people talk about, the dialogue doesn’t sparkle. (To be more specific, doesn’t sparkle enough. There are some terrific lines). Too much of it is intellectual diarrhea, which reaches beyond the fact that the characters purposely revel in their ability to behave like the class-conscious spawn of Woody Allen and F. Scott Fitzgerald. There is a lot of sadness hidden under those tuxes and dresses and that thematic complexity would have surfaced more readily had Stillman replaced more words with an acknowledgment of the audience’s ability to parse meaning out of fewer words.