| It's hard to think of an odder choice for director Whit Stillman's third film than a music-driven anthem to the lost heyday of disco, but oddness is Stillman's specialty. His first two movies, "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona," showed a sensibility already firmly in place -- droll, offhand, hyperarticulate and fascinated by the dynamics of group social life. "Metropolitan" has the tightest, most satisfying form: the sweet, brief arc of camaraderie among a klatch of Upper East Side kids during the few months of one year's debutante season. Stillman likes to savor the way a crowd of friends gels and then, inevitably, dissolves in the changeable time of early adulthood, and despite the brut dryness of his wit, he nurses a sentimental nostalgia about such losses.
In this case, the gang coalesces around Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chlok Sevigny), two young women fresh out of college (where they barely knew each other) and working together at entry-level jobs in book publishing. By night, they slip into slinky, sequined outfits and desert their cramped shotgun apartment (Stillman's always been pleasingly realistic about Manhattan housing) for a Sybaritic nightclub. It's the early 1980s, and the princessy Charlotte couldn't be more pleased with the disco scene: "I think it's really important that a person be in control of their own destiny," she explains in one of many lectures directed at the reserved Alice, as she surveys the glittering dance floor. "We've got a lot of choices."
Those choices mostly include, with typically sly Stillman irony, men they knew in college: Des (Chris Eigeman), a cynical womanizer who works as the club's underboss; Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), a benighted young adman whose career hangs on his ability to get his firm's dorky clients past the doorman; Josh (Matthew Keeslar), a freshly minted assistant district attorney with a nervous breakdown in his past; Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), a handsome environmental attorney; and, as a wild card, Dan, the co-worker who harangues the girls about their privileged background. Romances are kindled and quashed, triangles form and, in the background, Des wrestles with a burgeoning cocaine problem and evidence of nefarious doings at the club ("Shipping cash in canvas bags to Switzerland suggests illegality") and Alice and Charlotte search for the bestseller that will earn them a promotion to Full Editor.
All of this plot, however, only provides the scaffolding for Stillman's forte: conversation and the kind of character sketching that assembles an individual mainly out of quirks. The pleasures in "The Last Days of Disco" come when the friends rant and quarrel and sulk and circle each other with an unstable mixture of need and resentment. Des (played by Chris Eigeman, a Stillman regular and often considered to act as the director's alter ego) expounds irritably ("Do yuppies even exist? No one says, 'I'm a yuppie.' It's always the other guy") and gets into a long, hilarious debate with Josh about "The Lady and the Tramp" -- which is actually an argument about which of the two ought to be going out with Alice. The characters harbor crackpot theories, tell lies to make themselves seem more sympathetic and obsess about trivialities. Seeing "The Last Days of Disco" and revisiting "Metropolitan" eight years after Stillman made his feature debut is a reminder that observational comedy existed before a certain much-lamented sitcom. If Larry David were a WASP, and a tad less tormented, he might be making movies like Stillman's.
Or perhaps he'd be smarter and stick to TV; audiences like their sitcoms to be about friends but their movies to be about individuals and couples. Stillman's commitment to ensemble pieces and his leisurely pacing should relegate him to the art house circuit. That makes the musical aspect of "The Last Days of Disco" a bit more puzzling. It's impossible, from simply watching the film, to figure out how sincerely Stillman intends to valorize the era. While there are shots of characters walking into the club (gilded, costumed patrons, drifts of balloons and confetti showering down from the ceiling) with a guileless wonder blooming on their faces, there is also more than one deadpan speech about "the disco movement," including Josh's closing paean ("Disco will never be over. It will always live on in our minds and hearts. Disco was too great and too much fun to be gone forever") that reek of irony. As the end approaches, Stillman interjects documentary footage of rock fans torching disco records in a stadium and heavy-metal meatballs striding down the street in matching "Disco Sucks" T-shirts. There's even a scene where thugs (their motive -- whether related to the club's shadow business or its playlist -- is unclear) beat up Jimmy at the front door. Stillman is referring to all those movies set in nations on the verge of political upheaval (Jimmy compares the club's no-adman policy to Nazism), which is funny, but also tends to undermine any real wistfulness about disco's death.
When, at the movie's end, a whole carful of subway passengers joins Alice and her beau for an impromptu bit of boogying to "Love Train," the effect is startling. Oh yeah, you think, this is supposed to be a movie about dancing, about music, about a golden age of partying. Yet instead of leaving the theater with their toes tapping, audience members will probably find themselves inadvertently mimicking the way Stillman's characters talk, their distinctive, loopy patter. That's not much of a loss; I haven't suffered from a lack of anthemy dance movies lately, at least not that I've noticed, while amusing dialogue is always at a premium. In fact, there's something kind of sweet about Stillman's enthusiasm for the long-despised era's thumping backbeat, even if the rhythm of his own work is a lot closer to chamber music.