Friday August 28, 1998
If you've never understood why people begged, wheedled and pleaded to get past the velvet rope and into the celebrated discos of the 1970s, don't look to "54" to enlighten you.
Decadence has rarely looked so pathetic, lethargic and dispiriting as it does in this listless film, based very loosely on the story of Manhattan's celebrated Studio 54 and its reigning spirit, Steve Rubell. If the real 54 was this lacking in excitement and pizazz, it's a wonder all its patrons didn't fall asleep once they'd gotten inside the door.
Unlike writer-director Whit Stillman, who managed to infuse his own wry sensibility onto the nightclub scene in "The Last Days of Disco," first-time filmmaker Mark Christopher is as phobic about originality as a club doorman would be about a tourist in a polyester plaid leisure suit.
Not only is Christopher's "54" an unconvincing portrait of a particular moment in time, it's also completely uninspired dramatically. Imagine a lame "Love Boat" episode garnished with strictly pro forma drugs and sex and you'll get the picture.
Helping to make the film's treatment of that celebrated club even less accurate than it might have been was the decision to portray Studio 54 as completely Steve Rubell's enterprise. In fact, Rubell, who died a decade ago, had an involved partner named Ian Schrager, currently a successful hotelier, whose name and influence are never so much as mentioned.
Rubell himself is played, in a departure from the norm, by comic Mike Myers, best known in recent years as Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. Granted that there's not a whole lot of competition, Myers' wistful performance remains the best thing about the film.
Myers plays Rubell as a kind of dissolute Andy Hardy: bad, maybe, but not evil--someone who kept the rabble out because the nephew of the king of Saudi Arabia was counting on him to uphold standards. Sure, Rubell skimmed money off the top, handed out drugs by the handful and baldly propositioned the male help, but, hey, this was a guy with a dream, a dream of "the best damn party in the world, a party that would last forever."
Those words come not from Rubell himself but the film's protagonist, Shane O'Shea (Ryan Phillippe). The year is 1979 and while 19-year-old Shane may be pumping gas in a dead-end New Jersey town, that doesn't stop him from--you guessed it--yearning for the glamorous night life of glistening Manhattan, just the way Brooklyn boy John Travolta did in "Saturday Night Fever."
Though he has no particular ability except his sullen, pouty good looks and a hot body, Shane catches Rubell's eye at the door of Studio 54. When he crosses the velvet rope, Shane experiences a quasi-religious epiphany. "I was chosen," he gushes. "I'd never been chosen for anything before."
Hired as a busboy, Shane is soon befriended by co-worker Greg (Breckin Meyer) and his wife, Anita (Salma Hayek), a coat-check girl and aspiring singer who is fixated on becoming "the next Donna Summer." As for Shane himself, his dream is meeting glamorous soap opera ingenue Julie Black (Neve Campbell), a fellow Jersey native who crossed the river and made good.
Quicker than you can say "clueless arriviste," Shane is promoted to bartender at 54, a position he considers "the best job in the world." Soon he is tooling around Manhattan with a "Shane 54" vanity license plate, "raising his profile" by appearing in beefcake magazine shoots and falling in terrible funks when there is no article to accompany the photos.
Yes, it's true, Shane is so dense it never occurs to him that he has no profile to raise and that there couldn't possibly be an article about him because there would be nothing to write. "54" turns out to be as dense as he is: When the film wants to indicate how badly Shane fits into upper-crust Manhattan dinner parties, it has him profess ignorance about, of all people, Errol Flynn. Forget writers, artists and musicians, it's a lack of knowledge about movie stars that spells doom on the East Side.
Given that "54" is told in voice-over flashback by an older and presumably wiser Shane, it's a given that at a certain point the young man will be disabused about his disco dreams, but it's hard to have the patience to wait around until it happens. As one of the lyrics on the film's soundtrack aptly puts it, "the feeling's gone and we just can't get it back."
54, 1998. R, for strong sexuality, sex-related dialogue and some language. A Redeemable Features/ Dollface/ Filmcolony production, released by Miramax Films. Director Mark Christopher. Producers Richard N. Gladstein, Dolly Hall, Ira Deutchman. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Bobby Cohen, Don Carmody. Screenplay by Mark Christopher. Cinematographer Alexander Gruzzynski. Editor Lee Percy. Costumes Ellen Lutter. Music Marco Beltrami. Production design Kevin Thompson. Art director Tamara Deverell. Set decorator Karin Wiesel. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Ryan Phillippe as Shane O'Shea. Salma Hayek as Anita. Neve Campbell as Julie Black. Mike Myers as Steve Rubell. Sela Ward as Billie. Breckin Meyer as Greg.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun