Most people associate the disco era with hedonism, homosexuality, a sense of community, tacky fashions, and awful music. But in The Last Days of Disco Whit Stillman imagines the era as merely a singles bar for romantics in search of soulmates, largely heterosexual and hardly debauchees. The clothes, and the music, seem pretty good too. Floating through it are two beautiful, if strikingly different, women, surrounded by a host of look-alike, act-alike, sound-alike men.
With this film, his third, Stillman comes of age as the WASP Eric Rohmer, with a worldview at once so blinkered and benign that clubs full of transvestites and cokeheads come across as preppy and chaste. Characters from his other films, the similarly themed Metropolitan and Barcelona, return as well, revealing Stillman as a creator of his own fictional universe, the Joyce or Faulkner of the young urban professionals. Even as his glowing nighttime shots of the Empire State glamorized the class-ridden world of Metropolitan into a Manhattan wonderland, the disco era is cleaned up and rendered safe for Republicans in The Last Days of Disco. Stillman takes on something of the political character of George Bush, crossed with George Will: a sharp wit swaddled in a blanket of fuzzy niceness from a better era not so long ago. All this would be fine if Stillman were a better storyteller -- as it is, confusion over character motives, transformations, and even identity reigns in this film. It's a sharp disappointment after the varied pleasures of his earlier work. If Stillman wants to be the poet laureate of the Reagan era, that's fine: Just let his verses scan.
If nothing else this film proves that witty dialogue -- even lots of witty dialogue -- only takes you so far as a filmmaker. Hilarious riffs on everything from Uncle Scrooge comics to Julius Caesar, supplied here in abundance, lose their effectiveness when you can't tell who's speaking. Other filmmakers who specialized in barbed chatter wrote characters who looked and acted very differently from each other. Joseph Mankiewicz's actors -- let alone Preston Sturges' -- didn't swap lines; it would have been impossible. But Stillman's real character is not any individual, but rather a collective: the young and the mostly privileged of the 1980s. Harvard grad Stillman has them down cold -- which gets him points as an anthropologist -- but his failure to differentiate prepsters Mackenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar, and Robert Sean Leonard gets confusing after a while. One's a lawyer, one works in advertising, but they're all indistinguishable. The one exception is Stillman regular Chris Eigeman, who claims to be gay after feeling sexual attraction for someone on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Stillman doesn't do anything with this thread, despite the centrality of homosexuals to the disco era.
Instead, Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale are at the film's center, playing sweet (Sevigny) and snippy (Beckinsale) New York City roommates who socialize at a Studio 54-like disco. As an idealistic book editor, Sevigny displays the same calm in the midst of boho chaos that made her the most interesting character in her previous films Kids and Trees Lounge. As in her cab ride toward the end of Kids, she has plenty here to make her look thoughtful -- all three of these movies pair her off with unworthy men. A particularly nasty plot device of Kids echoes here, with similar effect: Stillman's attitude toward sex emphasizes the horrors of humiliation rather than the pleasures of the flesh.
Beckinsale (Cold Comfort Farm, Shooting Fish) is developing a screen character at once arrogant and funny. A woman who can kill with her looks but prefers to use her tongue, she'd be perfect casting for a new Dorothy Parker biopic. But here, her character's evident neuroses are never explored. And about 40 minutes into the film, her behavior toward Sevigny becomes so outrageously rude it's hard to see how they could possibly stay on speaking terms. This is but one of many unexplained ellipses in the plot, which with its multitude of screen characters acting at cross purposes devolves from an amusing look back at a lost world into a blurry Polaroid. Characters announce major changes in their lives, but when next we see them nothing has altered; or radical changes take place off camera. We only hear about a sharp U-turn in Sevigny's character toward the end of the film.
Given that much of the movie takes place in a disco's glittery, cavernous space, cinematographer John Thomas does a marvelous job in keeping the film's look bright and tweedy. The Last Days of Disco's even look matches Stillman's even keel as an artist -- boding well for his future career only if he finds material better suited for his easy, comfortable, prep school wit than the wrenching, life-transforming era looked at here.