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Whit Stillman surpasses himself with 1998's The Last Days of Disco, a superior comedy that finishes his celebrated trilogy begun with Metropolitan and Barcelona. The subject is a group of Ivy League grads from mostly privileged backgrounds struggling to stay employed and succeed in New York while enjoying a vibrant nightlife in the disco scene. It is "very early in the 1980s", when commercialized disco is dying a humiliating cultural death; at one point the film is interrupted by a video clip showing a cache of disco records being destroyed as halftime entertainment at a big football game. But this crowd of late baby boomers has nothing to do with media images of John Travolta and Donna Summer; it sees the club scene as an indispensable hub for social networking.
Writer-director Stillman populates his show with a dozen distinctive characters. Alice and Charlotte (Chloë Sevigny & Kate Beckinsale) are a major study in themselves. The attractive, ambitious women have entry-level jobs in publishing and must accept money from home plus take in a third roomer to afford a laughably impractical railroad apartment. But by night they're fashionable frequenters of a glitzy disco club, part of the preferred clientele list granted entrance at the doorway. The girls are very different in personality. Alice is unassertive but a good observer of people. Charlotte expresses her insecurity through heartless criticism. She sees nothing wrong with telling fellow publishing employee Dan Powers (Matthew Ross) to his face that he's a "meatball" with "low socioeconomic prospects". Charlotte's backhanded compliments to Alice are in reality a litany of hurtful slights: "Maybe in physical terms I'm a little cuter than you, but you should be much more popular than I am." Charlotte is totally untrustworthy and has no conscience; she's aggressive even when confessing wrongdoing.
Alice falls for the too-good-to-be-true environmental lawyer Tom Platt (Robert Sean Leonard), who neglects to say that he's engaged and then blames Alice for being too loose. But Tom's an amateur next to club employee Des McGrath (Stillmann fixture Chris Eigeman), a total heel. Des breaks off with his conquests by claiming that he's suddenly discovered that he's gay. He does try to be loyal to his disco friends, however, and risks trouble with his boss to sneak a pal into the club. Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) is in advertising, a profession considered terminally uncool. Jimmy panics when told that he's been blacklisted: "That's like something out of the Nazis!"
Whit Stillman is less concerned with formulaic plot construction than with capturing the essence of a certain time and place. Not all of the men are selfish swine, but nobody's perfect. Jimmy is too worried about securing club access for his ad clients to give Charlotte his full attention. Des sets his sights on Alice, intrigued by cruel gossip that she's an experienced lover. But Des has competition in Josh (Matt Keeslar) an assistant D.A. whose openness and sincerity appeals to Alice. Des jealously spills the beans about Josh's nervous breakdown back in college, which of course cues Charlotte to declare Josh damaged goods and bad boyfriend material. But Charlotte's own love life is in total disarray. She almost has a nervous breakdown when she thinks she's become pregnant.
The Last Days of Disco abounds with hilarious detail about singles life in the big city, where fancy cooking means dumping a can of Campbell's soup into a skillet of pre-cooked shrimp, and a cocaine abuser takes offense when a friend calls him an addict: "I'm not an addict. I'm a habitual user." At one point or another everybody is unemployed. Even Alice's hard-earned book deal goes up in smoke for no fault of her own. The Last Days of Disco is pre- AIDS yet highly conscious of STDs. One very honest scene shows one of the young ladies picking up her antibiotics at the drugstore, and suffering the pharmacist's silent judgment.
Stillman's dialogue always seems natural, yet it's obviously stylized: nobody uses profanity. The perfectly measured lines carry shrewd observations and pointed witticisms of the kind one would expect in a stage play. Josh is convinced that the decline of disco is only temporary. Tom Platt believes that the emergence of environmentalism can be sourced to a 1950s reissue of Bambi. Des proposes a judgmental reading of the "Tramp" character in Lady and the Tramp -- the dog is an unrepentant tail-chaser and always will be. Alice is more impressed by Josh's thoughtful interpretation of The Tortoise and the Hare. He's the first boy she's met with values higher than succeeding at any cost. Too heartfelt to be a satire, The Last Days of Disco embraces its characters. Stillman's generosity extends even to the sneering club doorman Van (Burr Steers), who by the end of the show is just another refugee from a "scene" whose day is done.
Criterion's DVD of The Last Days of Disco is a splendid presentation of Whit Stillman's most accessible comedy. Image and sound are flawless. John Thomas' glowing cinematography keeps all eyes on Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale whether in their club dresses or carrying paperwork at the office. Whit Stillman, Sevigny and Chris Eigeman are present for a pleasant commentary, discussing chaotic casting decisions and working in the heat of August. They describe the chaotic filming on the dazzling club set, a decommissioned movie palace in New Jersey. The trio also offers comments on a series of deleted scenes, most of which take place in Des McGrath's apartment. Stillman reads a chapter of his book The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards and provides sentimental footnotes for a selection of production stills. An original featurette and trailer show the film to be a tough sell to 1998 audiences; the disc insert liner notes are by David Schickler. The French poster artwork used for the cover doesn't convey the beauty of the two lead actresses.
Whit Stillman's earlier Metropolitan is a witty anthropological study of New York's debutante society that's slightly cold around the edges. Stillman gets deeper into his characters in The Last Days of Disco, and we feel his affection for them. It's a much more satisfying experience.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Days of Disco rates:
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