Monday, September 17, 2012

Metropolitan follows the self-absorbed and well-intended

Allison Parisi as Jane and Edward Clements as Tom

Whit Stillman’s singular wit is on fine display in Metropolitan, his first and perhaps most famous film. Some viewers might not want to follow upper crust (or “UC,” as one character says) New Yorkers who dine, dance, and complain about their privilege. Others will delight in their alternately ridiculous and thought-provoking dialogue.

One Christmas vacation, Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) stumbles into a crowd of socialites. He knows several of them, but his situation is decidedly middle class. Tom claims he doesn’t approve of their decadent balls, yet night after night he partakes in their soirees and late night discussions

These youths are prone to hyperbole and contradiction. One calls Tom “the phony of the decade,” while another calls a peer “one of the worst guys of modern times.” They don’t think twice about dismissing Charles Fourier’s utopian socialism. Initially obnoxious, their pretension becomes increasingly amusing and even poignant as they try to justify their existence. The awkward Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) breathlessly goes on about how their class is doomed. They have nowhere to go but down. What else are they to do but enjoy themselves and philosophize?

Along with the conflicted Tom and confusing Charlie, this group includes Cynthia McLean (Isabel Gillies), the “slut,” Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), the book lover, and the often passed-out Fred Nuff (Bryan Leder. They usually gather at homes of the sophisticated Sally Fowler (Dylan Hundley) or imperious Jane Clark (Allison Parisi).

The most memorable individual is Nick Smith, played by Christopher Eigeman. Like an Oscar Wilde character but with more conviction, Nick revels in defending the status quo and has an opinion on everything. Hypocritical, wise, passionate, dishonest—Tom says, “he’s basically a nice guy, I think.” Others believe Nick “could be really crazy.” He vilifies the titled Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), his apparent nemesis. Is this slander, or is Nick just more observant than the others? Nick might drive his friends crazy, but in a moment of crisis (real or imagined), they note that Nick “would know what to do.”

There are moments of pathos. Several characters harbor painful crushes, and both Nick and Tom come from “broken homes.” Nick uses humor to describe his step-mother’s malice, while Tom is in denial of his father’s indifference.

Christopher Eigeman as Nick

The cinematography is simple, and the music is appropriately whimsical. Because there is no plot, Stillman’s films can feel interminable. Eigeman is always spot on, but some of the young actors, most of them appearing in film for the first time, are rather wooden and awkward.

Still, this window into the lives of the self-absorbed and youthful rich contains great humor. While their manner of speaking may be unrecognizable to most audiences, these people are surprising in a way fictional characters rarely are. Only comparable to other Stillman personalities, Nick is a unique figure in cinema, as is Whit Stillman himself. 

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