Studio 54, where are you?

Instead of offering a comic portrait of '70s excess, '54' is a '90s-style morality tale.

By Charles Taylor
Published July 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The rise and fall of Studio 54 has luscious possibilities as a glitzy, bitchy movie comedy. An upscale playground offering unlimited sex, dope and good times, Studio 54 was a ready-made Jacqueline Susann novel. And there was perhaps nothing funnier about the disco than its star-fucker visionary, Steve Rubell. A Sammy Glick in Sergio Valente, Rubell was equal parts candy man, hustler and celebrity ass kisser. He was the sort of guy who was so arrogant that when a television interviewer asked him how much money the club took in each night, he had the stones to answer, "What the IRS doesn't know won't hurt them." What they found out hurt Rubell. The party he envisioned going on forever lasted only a few short years. Busted for tax evasion in the early '80s, Rubell reemerged from prison after a year and a half to act as a consultant to the reopened Studio 54. The club itself closed down in 1986. Three years later, Rubell died at age 45.

In the new "54," Mike Myers plays Steve Rubell as a Quaaluded version of Linda Richman, the "Coffee Talk" host he created on "Saturday Night Live." Fitted with a prosthetic nose and balding scalp and speaking in a thick Brooklyn Jewish whine, Myers' Rubell takes in his hedonist's paradise through eyes that his nightly drug ingestion has narrowed to slits, and flashes back a blissed-out smile. Myers floats through the movie with the lethargy of a pampered pill head, and still, he brings his scenes a comic zap.

I have a friend who, every time she sees Donna Karan, says, "You can take the girl out of Long Island ..." Well, looking at Myers' Rubell, you can still see a guy from Brooklyn who started out managing a couple of steak houses. Welcoming designer Elio Fiorucci to 54, Rubell says, "You're so Italian and normal, I could eat you with a spoon." Myers nails Rubell's Uriah Heep side. When you see him ruthlessly deciding who to admit to his exclusive party, you know just how much credence to give his blather about the new world without labels or prejudices. "54" doesn't give Myers much of a chance to get at Rubell's pathetically needy side, the part that made him court the glitterati as much as he used them. And that's a shame, because Myers seems fully capable of burrowing into this pathetic little man. He's more of an actor here than he's ever been, though writer-director Mark Christopher is content to use him for schtick.

Rubell, the frog princeling lost in his fantasies of the rich and famous, was the essence of Studio 54. That "54" isn't about Rubell is a measure of how blundering it is. Christopher has come up with a character named Shane (Ryan Phillippe, the Maxwell Caulfield of his era), a working-class kid from suburban Jersey whose golden-boy good looks get him into the club and start him on the road to becoming its star bartender. (Didn't Tom Cruise already play this part?)

The notion of a Jersey Candide who turns on club patrons of every sexual persuasion might have made for lewd, raucous comedy. Instead, Christopher falls back on the old wheeze about the working-class boy who forgets his roots. And the bad old movie clichis keep on coming. The soap star (Neve Campbell) that Shane lusts after turns out to be from Jersey just like him. He stabs his friend and co-worker Greg (the appealing Breckin Meyer) in the back to get ahead. Greg's wife Anita (Salma Hayek) is the coat-check girl who dreams of being a big star. And I haven't even mentioned the brittle older woman who "keeps" Shane (Sela Ward in the ultimate Sela Ward role; if anyone is thinking of remaking "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and is looking to cast Patricia Neal's part, Sela's your girl).

Everything about "54," from the running time (119 minutes) to the drab cinematography and cramped sets, seems to have been scaled down, cranked out on the cheap. Was Studio 54 really this tiny and underpopulated? Was the music level this conducive to conversation? The press kit lists scads of great disco numbers, but damned if I heard any of them. It's a flat, clumsy piece of filmmaking. When Phillippe and Ward are in bed, the shots are so badly matched that I believed they were having sex, just not with each other.

The best things the movie offers are a few throwaway moments: the club workers gathering at an all-night diner to divide drugs and trinkets that patrons have left behind; Lauren Hutton as a society hostess congratulating Ward on picking up Phillippe, saying, "Oh, you sly puss"; porn star Ron Jeremy trying to claim his jacket at the coat check and being told by the girl, "Do you know how many black leather jackets with poppers and cock rings in the left-hand pocket we got?"

I'm still waiting for the disco movie that deals with disco as music. Both "54" and the pallid "The Last Days of Disco" present it as kitschy nostalgia, though all pop music should age as well as disco has. Coming along in perhaps the most segregated period for pop music since before rock 'n' roll, disco shook things up in ways similar to punk. It allowed for fast, cheaply made records that opened the charts up to people who had been shut out by the proliferation of white corporate guitar bands. Not only were black voices back on the charts, but the first openly gay voices in pop music came along, too.

The narcissism and elitism of the disco scene aside, the scene's unabashed love of pleasure now seems a lot more honest -- and a lot less repressive -- than the conservative prudery that replaced it. The most depressing thing about "54" is that it pretends to be a celebration of the casual sex and drug-taking of the '70s club scene when it's really a morality tale that tells us -- guess what, kids! -- that dope and sex lead to self-deception, self-destruction and betrayal. (It's also depressing that the sex we see is almost exclusively hetero.) I'm not denying that people drugged and screwed themselves to death, and that it's sad. But can't grown-ups be trusted to enjoy a comic celebration of excess, especially when that excess was the essence of the subject at hand? Far from being a nostalgia trip, "54" is right in tune with the times. All the press and politicians currently making royal asses of themselves by acting as if they've never heard of adultery can enjoy it without feeling like hypocrites.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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