Home Video Hovel- Metropolitan, by West Anthony
I hadn’t seen Whit Stillman’s 1990 debut feature Metropolitan since before the financial meltdown a few years back, and I was curious about how I would perceive the film — newly released on blu-ray by the Criterion Collection — in this new Occupy Wall Street environment. Would I still find the young denizens of the Upper East Side as endearing and likable (in their own solipsistic way) as before, or would I hurl objects at the screen in outrage, cursing their anachronistic frippery and hollering for revolution?
I needn’t have worried — let’s face it, the debutante ball season was probably anachronistic long before this picture was ever made. There was always a quaint fairytale aspect to Stillman’s well-heeled kids that makes it impossible to resent their obvious distance from the calamities and cares of the lower classes. While John Hughes’ teen fictions of the ’80s presented a life deceptively recognizable but no less rooted in Hollywood convention, Whit Stillman presented a world unknown to many filmgoers that nevertheless depicted the same young-adult-hurt-feeling-athons that are instantly recognizable to just about anyone, and this is what keeps Metropolitan an enjoyable and truly independent film.
As the central character Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) falls in with a group of young socialites-in-training, the trappings of upper-class New York life become nearly irrelevant as the comedies and tragedies of youth parade before the viewer. Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina) is obviously smitten with Tom, but he can’t see it because he’s pining for The Girl That Got Away But Was Never Really His To Begin With. Charlie (Taylor Nichols) is obviously smitten with Audrey, but what could she possibly see in a guy who apparently spends all his spare time creating goofy acronyms like UHB (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie)? And Nick (Chris Eigeman) is obviously smitten with himself, given to mordant sarcasm and ironic posturing like Oscar Levant without the piano. These and other members of the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack” spend the course of the film indulging in earnest debate over matters that have yet to affect them, making naive proclamations that only the passage of time could prove silly, and stumbling toward adulthood in their parents’ obsolete finery, all the while hoping for the things we all wanted at their age: to be noticed, to be understood, to be appreciated, to be adored.
There is a sweetness to Stillman’s Oscar-nominated screenplay that keeps Metropolitan light and fun, Nick’s cynical gadding about notwithstanding, and it is well-served by the cast of up-and-comers. Clements and Farina make an engaging and winsome couple, while Taylor Nichols seems born to play someone who’s too smart to know what to do with himself. The standout, now as then, remains Chris Eigeman, who forged a career for himself with the loutish cads he played in Stillman’s trilogy of ’90s features which also included Barcelona and The Last Days Of Disco; here, he gets all the most memorable lines and makes a banquet of them. The Criterion blu-ray presentation is about as fine a high-definition transfer as we’re likely to get from a film shot on Super 16mm; all of the extra features from their earlier DVD release are included here, such as a commentary track with Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen and actors Eigeman and Nichols, and outtakes that include the unlikely presence of Troma Films kingpin Lloyd Kaufman.
Whit Stillman has made films as deliberately mannered and wordy as, say, Kevin Smith, but with more attention to character and with a greater degree of erudition and wit that takes its audience’s intelligence as a given. (There are also considerably fewer Star Wars references and fart jokes.) Although Stillman has made only a handful of pictures compared with Smith, the latter’s works become more and more unsatisfying and unnecessary over time, while the former’s hum with a vitality and freshness that endures even two decades later. While I haven’t yet seen Stillman’s latest offering, Damsels In Distress, the three films he wrote and directed in the ’90s remain entirely watchable and enjoyable. For the uninitiated, Metropolitan is as good a place to start as any.