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Self-Absorption in the Disco Era

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 1998

  Movie Critic

The Last Days of Disco Kate Beckinsale (left) and Chloe Sevigny dance away in "The Last Days of Disco." (Castle Rock)

Whit Stillman
Chloe Sevigny;
Kate Beckinsale;
Christopher Eigeman;
Matthew Keeslar;
Robert Sean Leonard;
Tara Subkoff;
David Thornton;
Jennifer Beals
Running Time:
1 hour, 54 minutes
Sexual innuendo and profanity
Studio 54, where are you?

Well, you're in Whit Stillman's new film, "The Last Days of Disco," and, however briefly, you're full of gaudy young souls hellbent on pleasure without consequence, ready to ram anything powdery up their nostrils and shack up with anything that breathes. In Oliver Stone's hands, such a conceit could be positively pornographic.

Not so here. The director isn't much on orgies; he's all talk. But that's good, not bad, because his talk is so brilliant.

Stillman is the Balzac of the ironic class, the Dickens of people with too much inner life. His dialogue is crafted to the point of mannerism. Sometimes he seems like a David Mamet who actually paid attention during English class and learned a thing or two. Yet he's always amusing in his sly way, and this film is in its own way a near epic, attempting to sum up a generation as it stumbles against the first crisis of its collective life, which is the utter collapse of sexual caution in a cocaine-fueled decade-long party.

Though some actual events could be said to occur in his new film – people dance, there's a police raid, someone gets to say, albeit ironically, "Book this bozo," and someone comes down with an impolite case of herpes simplex B – the core of the movie is still the chatter. In "The Last Days of Disco" we are where we always are with Stillman: eavesdropping on an intense and overly self-conscious group of tender young elite-college grads as they endlessly dissect the quality of the most important thing in the world to them, their own lives. In fact, they almost spend more time talking about their lives than living them. Bah, youth: It's so boring, the young deserve it!

The scene is New York in the early '80s, as the empire known as Disco is beginning to tumble out of rhythm and begin its long burn before our very eyes. These brilliantly self-absorbed youngsters even sometimes notice this. Not often, true. But sometimes.

But like the timid souls they are, the young ladies of publishing and the junior lawyers and ad execs of Stillman's world don't jump into the caldron and get boiled alive. They're far too sensible. They wobble tentatively on the edges, peeking in but unwilling to actually risk much. And of course, they talk over everything. The setting is a nameless nightclub in midtown, said to be inspired by Studio 54.

The high priest of this set is Des, played by the intensely self-involved Chris Eigeman, a wonderful staple of Stillman's films. Des works as an assistant manager of the club and he can get his lesser circle of less sparkly friends in pretty regularly, which makes him a god. In exchange, they merely have to listen to his rants as if they make sense and grant him the solemnity of his own importance, which he has already granted to himself.

Des is at the center of the group, but not really at the center of the movie. That role is shared by Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), pretty young women who Work in Publishing because they think selling books is more important than selling shoes (how little they know!). Basically the film watches as these two pilgrims decide whether to take the plunge.

There are others in the group, too. Jimmy Steinway (MacKenzie Astin) is a desperate junior ad exec who is charged by the squarer members of his firm with getting them into the club. But the club's owner, a piratical Irishman named Bernie Rafferty (David Thornton), hates ad people. He won't let that element in. They're "too nice." So Jimmy is always begging Des for a little break. Meanwhile, the young lawyer Josh (Matt Keeslar) really loves the place but he's a little too corny for it. He doesn't get its irony; it's just a neat place to him.

These innocents are whirled about, almost ceaselessly. The central temptation is Alice's, when she meets a handsome lawyer (Robert Sean Leonard) who collects Scrooge McDuck comics. She tries to reassemble her personality to be more popular than she was at school, but her essay into bubbliness fails miserably and gets her dumped after a one-night stand.

Sevigny is a curious actress. Her face is doughy and almost inexpressive and she never seems as pretty as the others make her out to be. But somehow she manages to print her soul on the part, and one feels Alice's struggle with the issues of her age. Alice has integrity, an inner life and even hopes for the future.

None of those terms could be used to discuss the prettier, sillier, emptier Charlotte, played behind a brilliant American accent by the Kate Beckinsale who so dominated John Schlesinger's "Cold Comfort Farm." Charlotte is proudly shallow and pettily vain; she's always betraying Alice, always confessing her betrayal to snivel her way back into friendship, then promptly betraying her again. The two of them make a wonderful Cisco-and-Pancho or Roger-and-Gene team for this jaded age.

Slowly, almost unnoticeably, "The Last Days of Disco" gathers momentum; each of the lives it chronicles reaches a turning point, and they all find themselves on that cusp of confusion known as the beginning of adult life. They learn that being grown up doesn't necessarily involve discos.

It's a hard lesson, one other generations learned in trenches or on islands in faraway, mean places. Still, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and dance.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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