Whit Stillman's film career started, unequivocally on a high-note with his 1990 feature-length debut "Metropolitan," a low-budget dramedy focused on the lives of upper class New Yorkers. The self-written, produced, and directed film would net Stillman an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and result in two more films, 1994's "Barcelona" and 1998's "The Last Days of Disco," both films that cemented both Stillman's dominance as a writer and director. It wouldn't be until 2012, that film fans would get another taste of Stillman's unique brand of humor, with "Damsels in Distress" a farcical comedy set on the campus of a small, private east coast college. Perhaps more interesting than the end result of the story itself, would be the looming question: how has Stillman changed with 12 years between projects? The answer is not entirely straightforward, however, the entertainment value of "Damsels and Distress" is very much so.
Wasting no time with embellishment, "Damsels and Distress" dives right into the deep end, tracking a trio of stuck-up students led by Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig, in what proves to be a thankless role) as they set their sights and social hooks into Lily (Analeigh Tipton), an incoming freshman who the trio, or more accurately Violet, the de-facto opinion of the group, feel needs help in college life. Stillman pulls a cunning trick, one I'm not entirely convinced was intentional," as viewers grow comfortable learning about life at Seven Oaks through the eyes and ears of Lily. The initially adjusted newbie to this absurd life reacts with stunned dismay and a tinge of sarcastic bite as Stillman's knack for absurdity spews forth from the mouth of Violet and her friends, Rose and Heather. Stillman in fact, lays on the comedy quite heavy at first and initially after a few, honesty earned belly laughs, "Damsels in Distress" shapes up to be a rousing success.
Sadly, the film loses its focus as it turns its attention away from Lily and chooses to instead focus more on Violet; it's a violation of the simple rule of "too much of a good thing," as the refocusing forces a satisfyingly one-dimensional character into a three-dimensional protagonist that never earns an ounce of sympathy. Granted, Stillman continues to use Violet as an avatar for every, young, snobbish world changer, but there are a few truly sad moments in Violet's life that the audience should connect to, but the character's lack of defined growth never lets us take the risk of caring. In the process, "Damsels in Distress" becomes a cluttered mess of supporting characters, who are nearly all shallow caricature and a sense of comedy that runs out of steam just in time for an over-the-top conclusion that elicits at least a mild smile.
Ultimately, "Damsels in Distress" proves Whit Stillman is still a unique filmmaker; while this offering may not be his finest work, it's still a satisfying and entertaining piece of storytelling. For every joke that falls flat, there are at least two that result in a grin, if not a chuckle. It would be a disservice to any artist to expect them to continue to follow the same pattern of creation and Stillman does seek to try something new while managing to add his own mark of ownership on the final product. At the very least, "Damsels in Distress" makes us want more from Stillman and hopefully future offerings will see the inconsistencies in this film more thoroughly polished prior to filming, if not trimmed outright.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is very clean looking, albeit at the expense of some fine detail. Colors, while vibrant do have a soft look to them in a number of scenes, while contrast is a little on the high side. There's some faint edge-enhancement, most notable in outdoor scenes.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 soundtrack has strikingly balanced audio, with appropriately used surrounds for a dialogue rich, small-scale comedy. The mix of the audio gives a sense of the intimate crossed with the absurd, while the low-end springs to life during a small number of soundtrack dominant scenes. French, Spanish, and Thai 5.1 tracks are included as well as English, English SDH, French, Chinese, Spanish, Korean and Thai subtitles.
Those lamenting this film not getting a Criterion treatment like "Metropolitan" and "The Last Days of Disco" should not be disappointed, as Sony offers a decent offering, of worthwhile extras. A feature-length commentary with Stillman and cast is first up. Following that, viewers have a 10-minute, promotional in feel, behind-the-scenes featurette and a 30-minute Q&A session with Stillman and cast titled "An Evening with Damsels in Distress." There's some obvious duplicated content from the commentary, but it's still a nice bonus worth watching. Rounding out the extras are a handful of deleted scenes and a short outtakes reel.
While not Stillman's finest hour, "Damsels in Distress" is a flawed, but ultimately enjoyable comedy. The humor is a double-edged sword, ranging from bitingly witty to shallow and broad; the cast however keeps the shakiest moments of the experience afloat, with characters that are intentionally flat. Stillman fans should be pleased by the modest, but quality bonus features Sony has bestowed upon this release. Recommended.