The Last Days of Disco
Director: Whit Stillman. Cast: Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar, Robert Sean Leonard, Tara Subkoff, Matthew Ross, Jennifer Beals. Screenplay: Whit Stillman.

The Last Days of Disco takes as its setting those years in the early 1980's when disco was having what in retrospect appears as the first of many "last hurrahs." The point is ostensibly that disco was just on the cusp of not being any fun anymore, but unfortunately, Whit Stillman's filmmaking style has itself already passed that point of no return. However fresh and charming his earlier films, Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994), might have seemed upon their release, the new picture is a squawky, self-satisfied bore that isn't likely to get anyone's toes tapping.

Chloë Sevigny, stars as a goodie-goodie junior publishing executive, named Alice in one of many annoyingly coy gestures in Stillman's screenplay. Alice and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) graduated together from Hampshire College, though it has only been through their mutual move to New York City and working together at the publishing house that they have become close friends. Charlotte tries to wean Alice of her tendencies to be overly judgmental—"Everyone hates being criticized," she assures her, "I mean, everyone just hates that"—and to help Alice shed "the air of the kindergarten teacher" that Charlotte feels is Alice's biggest impediment to social and romantic contentment.

I do not intend words like "wean," however, to portray Charlotte as some kind of nurturer, since in point of fact she is equal parts snob and snake, reckless in her public statements and often hurtful in her private observations, though she professes never to mean any harm. Charlotte eventually proposes that she and Alice split the rent on an apartment, which, despite Alice's anxiety that "It's more than just not knowing each other well, I'm not even sure that we like each other" and her own discontent with the floorplan of the apartment they discover, she agrees to do anyway. A third roommate, Holly, is played by Tara Subkoff, Alison Folland's friend in All Over Me, but Stillman never spends any time introducing us to her or making her concerns or even her personality seem all that relevant to the goings-on.

So there's the female sphere of The Last Days of Disco, which careens around with (and often into) the male sphere of ad execs, nightclub staff, and "Harvard men" who appear in true Stillman fashion to hold forth at great length and frequency about grand philosophical issues, though the folly of their behavior and the baby-facedness of the actors constantly expose such grandiloquence as pure gas. Chris Eigeman, a vet of all of Stillman's projects, appears here as Des, a gatekeeper at the local disco who is too hot-headed for the rest of the staff to cotton to him much. We first meet Des when he is assuaging the pain of his break-up with Nina (Jennifer Beals, wasted as nothing more than a cheeky reference to her own Flashdance-born disco credibility) by confessing to her his recently-acknowledged homosexuality.

Little time passes before we realize his sexuality crisis is a sham he's perfected to let his women down easy and move on pronto; on the other hand, is it really a sham? Des's only substantial relationship in the film is his devotion to his male friend Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), a standard-issue yuppie advertising executive whose job depends on providing his clients entrée (via Des) into the disco. Unfortunately for him, the managers of the disco have decided to oust all ad-men in an attempt to restore the club back to the free-wheeling boundlessness of the early days of disco and save it from WASPy boredom—all of which means Jimmy must wear a series of improbable masks and costumes to sneak his way inside.

The other male characters in the film include Josh (Matt Keeslar), an assistant district attorney who looks and acts like Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club; Dan (Matthew Ross), a co-worker of Alice and Charlotte's who scorns disco culture until he starts dating Holly and actually visits a club; and Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), an almost absurdly under-written character on whom Alice tries her best Mae West imitation only to have Tom put her down for so obviously departing from her natural personality.

The alternating romantic couples formed amongst this group, and the requisite fall-outs produced by those couplings, are not only too numerous to describe, they are in almost every case too uninteresting to recall clearly or care about in the slightest. A recurring dialogue among the characters in The Last Days of Disco revolves around the comparative virtues of "group socializiing" versus "ferocious pairing-off," but the seemingly unintended irony is that Stillman's men and women are such a thin, undifferentiated lot that, no matter who is currently dating whom, we always see them as the same monolith of quips and whines. As the picture wears on, Stillman himself seems to lose interest in detailing their mutual courtships, and at least one relationship has apparently been underway for some time before we know anything about it. Another character goes from a fear of domesticity to excitement at possibly having a baby with no information about how she made such a total about-face in perspectives.

Sevigny, an actress who excelled at playing a cobra in Palmetto earlier this year, is badly miscast as good-girl Alice. Her perpetually sleepy eyes and drowsy delivery are perfect for menacing roles but make her seem rigid and tentative throughout this film, even in moments like an office triumph or her lashings-out against Charlotte. Beckinsale, for her part, is tart and snappish as Charlotte and successfully eliminates the period-piece aura (Cold Comfort Farm, Much Ado About Nothing) that was threatening to encase her as another Helena Bonham Carter.

But wait a minute—given its costumes, its music, and its titular insistence on a very specific cultural moment, isn't The Last Days of Disco also a period piece? Well, yes and no. Visually and musically, the evocation of the early 80's is dead-on, though, unlike The Wedding Singer for example, Stillman's film does not expect to ride into favor on the strength of nostalgia alone. The question remains, however, what Stillman does expect audiences to enjoy or learn from this picture, since even The Wedding Singer had a fondness for its characters and a sweet impulse to entertain us that The Last Days of Disco is fatally lacking.

Moreover, disco itself is not convincingly rendered as a phenomenon that drives these characters' thoughts, inspires them, or refreshes them anymore than any other generic "nightlife" activity that could have been pulled from any other era. None of their evenings out or romantic dalliances have anything to do with disco specifically, which is why the idea of "period" never successfully emerges from Stillman's film. And any impulse to nostalgia we might have as viewers is quickly annulled by the uniform unlikability of the characters, since "nostalgia" in such circumstances would require us to look fondly on a time of complacency, indulgence, and shocking arrogance. Unappealing characters, however much they impair a movie's capacity to entertain, cannot of themselves make the film unworthy; Robert Altman portrayed a slightly older but equally self-important and chatterboxy demimonde in Short Cuts, which nonetheless proved a satisfying and provocative picture. The difference is that Altman was appropriately critical of his characters' arrogance, while Stillman wants too much for us to like them in spite of themselves. What would it mean to like anyone "in spite of" their most definitive trait?

I left The Last Days of Disco feeling as though Whit Stillman didn't have anything concrete in mind to say about his characters, or about disco, but had merely found a new venue for his one-of-a-kind white-bread, loudmouth round-robins. The best sequence in the film was its first, when the exuberant pop-track that played over the credits was muffled almost to silence as Alice and Charlotte are trying to get into the over-crowded club; when they finally do get inside, the song bursts to the forefront again, and we experience as an audience the same frustration at its deprivation and joy of its resurrection that the generation of disco-lovers must have felt every time they shoved past the bouncer and into those rooms. Unfortunately, The Last Days of Disco does a great job of ushering us through the door but, once we're inside, forgets to throw the party. D+

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