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'54': Rise and Fall of a Disco Inferno

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 1998

  Movie Critic

Salma Hayek plays a Studio 54 employee whose dream is to become a singing sensation. (Miramax)

Mark Christopher
Ryan Phillippe;
Mike Myers;
Neve Campbell;
Salma Hayek;
Breckin Meyer;
Sherry Stringfield;
Sela Ward;
Heather Matarazzo
Running Time:
1 hour, 33 minutes
Profanity, nudity, sexuality, drug use and an overdose
This ain't no party.
This ain't no disco.
This ain't no fooling around.
Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime"

Neither the celebration of shallow excess that you might fear, nor the holier-than-thou dismissal that you might expect, Mark Christopher's "54" is an entertaining and surprisingly serious look at the infamous New York discotheque, with a genuine nostalgia for the late '70s and early '80s, tempered by a healthy dose of jaundice – but without a sense of condescension or superiority.

It was an era of nylon shirts unbuttoned to the solar plexus, of skinny, metallic headbands and tight Jordache jeans – and if you think you were immune to all that, you better take a look at your old photo album again.

It was also a time of cocaine and the clap, at least for a segment of society – the glamorous and the promiscuous and those who aspired to both. As Andy Warhol once said of the celebratedly image-conscious Studio 54, it was a "dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the floor," where "the stars are nobody because everybody's a star. It's the place where my prediction from the '60s finally came true: 'In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.' "

"54" is a story of a few of those famous nobodies and of one of those stars. Told from the point of view of Shane O'Shea (Ryan Phillippe), "54" revolves around a pretty boy from New Jersey who flees his provincial family (including Heather Matarazzo in a small but touching performance as his geeky little sister Grace) to work as a busboy at the nirvana of the nightclub world. Eventually, he works his way up to bartender, a job that qualifies him not just for better tips but also celebrity status of a sort. For, in that insular world, broad shoulders and tight buns are all that is needed to land you in the oversize pages of Interview magazine or in the bed of a pill-popping supermodel.

Along the way up the glittering ladder, Shane meets Greg (Breckin Meyer) and Anita (Salma Hayek), an equally fame-hungry fellow busboy-cum-drug dealer and his coatcheck-girl wife, who dreams of becoming a recording star.

Although Shane's meteoric rise and subsequent fall from the mirror-ball heights of club-land renown are ostensibly what the film is about, "54" is really more about another character whose career trajectory closely parallels Shane's ascent into the limelight and slide into disgrace – but to a more prominent degree. It's as much the story of the late Steve Rubell (Mike Myers), former restaurateur and Studio 54 co-founder, whose hubris was as much a cause of his end as that of a tragic hero.

In his first dramatic role, Myers is both poignant and funny as the glib-tongued and draconian Rubell, who ruled the tiny fiefdom on Manhattan's 54th Street like a Napoleonic potentate. From beneath a thinning wig, a prosthetic overbite and an unapologetic Brooklyn accent, Myers elicits not only laughter but pity for a character whose unappealing arrogance is mitigated by an all too human sweetness and need to be loved – even if by a crowd of 500 strangers.

Whether separating the "ins" from the "outs" at the club's notorious velvet rope or addressing his subjects on the dance floor from the deejay booth on high, Myers brings to Rubell an unexpected vulnerability. Cast for his ready ability to whip out the schmooze ("So Italian and adorable! I want to eat you with a spoon. Come," he gushes to clothier Elio Fiorucci), Myers gradually worms his way into your heart, complete with all of Rubell's weaknesses.

When he is arrested by the IRS for income tax evasion after trash bags of unaccounted-for cash are discovered on the premises – a plot device also incorporated into Whit Stillman's less realistic "The Last Days of Disco" – what is shocking is just how much sympathy Myers manages to evoke for the unctuous megalomaniac.

There's lots of dancing, lots of drugs, lots of indiscriminate sex and lots of fun, throbbing disco music in "54" – which may disgust some, and make others wistful for bygone days when they didn't know any better than to indulge in such hedonism.

At one point in the film, Rubell describes himself as a "philosopher," saying he believes that "the path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." That's true enough, but, as "54" makes achingly clear, all too often that path leads through the forest of regret.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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