Like chamber music, "Metropolitan" is sprightly, intimate and all too self-aware. A droll tale of the tragically overbred, it teases the bored and endangered debutante society of Park Avenue. All canapes and haute bourgeoisie, it is a smart comedy of conversation, like "My Dinner With Andre" but with eight place settings.
Most films about the upper classes are studies in us vs. them, farces in which blue collar bests blueblood every time. But "Metropolitan," a preppie-made film, finds the upper crust is light and flaky, crumbling of its own accord. "People of our background are doomed to failure," observes Charlie (Taylor Nichols), the most outspoken of a clique of young socialites, none of whom has a driver's license. "This must be how the incompetence starts -- being unable to master the commonplace practices of everyday life."
Charlie and Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), a Princeton freshman from the wrong side of Park (the west side), vie for honors as the most radical member of the "Sally Fowler Rat Pack," or SFRP. Made up of four debs and their escorts, the SFRP gathers nightly to argue the merits of agrarian socialism, detachable tuxedo collars and "Mansfield Park."
Jane Austen is a favorite of the group's wallflower, Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), who finds herself drawn to Tom, the exciting outsider who prefers literary criticism to novels. A considerate charmer, Audrey is an anomaly among the debs -- Cynthia (Isabel Gillies), Jane (Allison Rutledge-Parisi) and Sally (Dylan Hundley) -- all world-weary snobs. She seems to have escaped from an Italian film, with her pouty mouth, warm smile and rumpled bangs.
Nick (Christopher Eigeman) is the leader of the pack, an affable kidder certain that his stepmother is planning his murder. He takes Tom, a socialist with "a vehement objection to deb parties," under his wing. "Staying home to feel sorry for the less fortunate," he points out, is self-deluded snobthink. But it is Tom's prep school infatuation with deb-of-the-year Serena Slocum (Elizabeth Thompson) that truly draws him into the social whirl.
Whit Stillman, who wrote and directed this anthropological comedy of manners, approaches his material with both an insider's affection and contempt for his own kind. The SFRP members are overwrought as Kentucky thoroughbreds, an absurd, narrow-brained passel of fast brats with wits slowed in the passionate pursuit of inbreeding. What passes for friendship is only shared arrogance.
"Metropolitan" brings the little people into its world but keeps the rooms roped off with velvet cord. It's a low-budget look at the well heeled, a bit of nouveau decadence, whimpering, tastefully faded and a bit wan. The rich, it wants to say, are like you and me, only with better manners.
Metropolitan, at the Key, is rated PG-13.