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‘Party Girl’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 08, 1995

In "Party Girl," first-time filmmaker Daisy von Scherler Mayer's stylized, ultra-hip New York fairy tale, there's a crisis in young Mary's partying life. The 24-year-old Manhattan diva (played by Parker Posey), whose life consists of building her punk-designer wardrobe and getting into all the right nightclubs, has been briefly jailed for holding a rent party in her loft.

Bailed out by stern godmother Judy (Sasha von Scherler—the filmmaker's real mom), the fashion-conscious down-and-outer realizes it's time to think about her career and future. But with nothing available but a clerk's job at the library Judy runs, what's a gal (who just wants to have fun) to do?

"Do you think I'd make a good designer?" she asks her DJ roommate, Leo (Guillermo Diaz), weighing professional options the way she considers color schemes for her clothing. "Do you think I'd make a good writer? Do you think I'd make a good actress? Do you think I'd make a good investment banker?"

Faced with few options, Mary goes for the library job but discovers it's not that easy. Misunderstanding a customer's inquiry for Darwin's "The Origin of the Species," at one point, she directs the inquirer to the "Oranges and Peaches" section. And she's utterly flummoxed by the library's Dewey Decimal System.

"A trained monkey learned this system on PBS in a matter of hours!" sniffs her godmother disdainfully.

"Party Girl," which director and co-writer Mayer made for less than $1 million, is hip and contemporary without being archly so. This world of poseurs, DJs and bouncers is just an urban backdrop for Mary's modest, but engaging transformation from bratty ugly duckling to serene, relatively literate swan.

Before long, Mary is embracing that Dewey system and using it to organize roommate Leo's extensive record collection. As Leo watches in horror, she demonstrates to him how he can find one particular disc under two categories: Disco Classics and Divas/Male. Mary has also fallen madly for Mustafa (Omar Townsend), a teacher-turned-street-vendor from Lebanon, who teaches Mary deeper things, like the myth of Sisyphus. Things are looking up, until she gets fired for an after-hours dalliance in the library with Mustafa.

As Mary, a fiercely intelligent being capable of city-cafe sophistication and childish petulance, Posey (who played the conniving teenager Tess in "As the World Turns" and appeared in Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused") fills her role with perky girl gusto. There's something sexy, provocative and vulnerable about her, all at the same time.

"I think I'm an existentialist," she declares, not long after meeting and being influenced by Mustafa. "I do." Her statement is banal but also winning. And that obsession for Mustafa goes into the surreal when she performs what she considers a hypnotic "Arabic" dance, while picturing backlighted visions of her loved one. Far from being culturally disparaging, her undulating, veil-over-the-face dance, as she utters passionate, mock-Arabic chants ("Na, ni na," etc.), is a goofily funny tribute to the man she adores.

There are life-in-New-York jokes throughout the movie, which infuse it with post-punk humor. When a nervous Leo goes to a nightclub owner to interview for the job of house DJ, he hears her say "imitate a cat puking." Desperate for work, he launches into an amusing, feline retching routine. The appalled owner interrupts him to hold up a poster that advertises the band Imitate a Cat Puking. Oops. Leo still gets the job though, which is yet another reason to qualify "Party Girl" as a fairy tale.

PARTY GIRL (R) — Contains sexual situations, profanity, brief nudity and drug use.

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