Every year, actors, musicians and models team up with big-name designers to have some fun with fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The dress code for the annual Met Gala fundraiser corresponds to an exhibition at the museum’s Costume Institute. In 2015 that show was “China: Through the Looking Glass,” and the fitfully engaging documentary “The First Monday in May” takes a peek behind the scenes of both the exhibition and the party.
Beginning about eight months before the gala, director Andrew Rossi (“Ivory Tower,” “Page One: Inside the New York Times”) introduces us to the masterminds of the complementary events: Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton and party planner Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue. To the casual fashion fan, Wintour may be the movie’s biggest draw — a chance to see what the woman who inspired “The Devil Wears Prada” is really like. She doesn’t disappoint. She wears sunglasses during business meetings and recoils at the sight of a video installation in the lobby of her newly designed offices. When she and her minions iron out the seating charts, first names suffice as they juggle where to place Jessica, Kate, Harvey and Julianne (that would be Chastain, Hudson, Weinstein and Moore).
Bolton has a less commanding presence, but the British curator makes an amiable tour guide. He may look fashionable now in his cropped pantsuits and thick-rimmed glasses, but he insists that he still feels like “a little kid from Lancashire, totally in awe.”
That’s one of many instances in which the movie tries to create drama by portraying the exhibition, the party and the people as some kind of underdogs. Scenes focus on curators from other sections of the museum who see fashion as a lesser form. Bolton, meanwhile, assembles gorgeous dresses and vibrant ceremonial robes while lamenting that he can never live up to the success of the 2011 exhibition “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.”
The dark-horse angle is a tough sell, though, especially with all the starry, deep-pocketed support. A seemingly endless parade of A-listers vamp for the shutterbugs on the red carpet — Rihanna, Beyoncé, Amal and George Clooney, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lopez. The huge flower-covered replica of a Chinese jar standing in the museum’s entrance was composed of 250,000 roses, which seems like a pricey investment until you consider that the 2015 gala raised $12.5 million.
The most interesting aspect of the movie isn’t the predictable deadline tension as opening night approaches, but the minefield Bolton created for himself when he settled on his exhibition. He has to walk a fine line to pay homage to Chinese culture without celebrating centuries of appropriation, in which Western artists and designers used Asian elements to reinforce stereotypes. Bolton didn’t shy away from this; for example, displaying costumes used by Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first major Asian actress, who was often employed to play either a “dragon lady” or a meek, submissive “butterfly.”
The movie is more successful when it lets the logistical challenges take center stage. The ultimate takeaway is that putting on the “Super Bowl of fashion events” is a tall order. “The First Monday in May” isn’t a deep examination of its subjects, but at least it’s breathtaking to look at.
PG-13. At Landmark’s Atlantic Plumbing. Contains brief strong language. 90 minutes.