Filled with talky, self-conscious characters culled from the East Coast plutocracy of old, white money, Whit Stillman's films ask the audience to care about a group of spoiled young people who sit around examining their own cosseted navels -- and they actually succeed.
"The Last Days of Disco," the third film by Stillman, extends and elaborates on the theme and style of his first two films, "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona," both of which exhibited a breezy charm that tempered their sometimes gratingly self-involved characters.
Although Stillman has probably gleaned all the insight and charm that he can from the WASP nest he's been obsessively observing for eight years, "The Last Days of Disco" has a winningly elegiac quality. It's the perfect final installment of this chapter in the filmmaker's career.
In "The Last Days of Disco," which fits chronologically between "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona," two groups of recent college graduates mingle and pair off at the center of their social universe: an unnamed disco whose velvet-roped exclusivity is meant to recall Studio 54.
But the velvet rope -- and the occasional appearance of such luminaries as George Plimpton -- is about all this club has in common with that notorious den of iniquity. In Stillman's estimation, the discos of the early '80s weren't playgrounds for recreational sex and drugs as much as modern-day agoras, where people came together in shared communal values and good faith.
It's a sweet notion, and part of the appeal of "The Last Days of Disco" is that is doesn't dwell on endless shots of white powder going up noses or protracted scenes of wretched excess. Stillman flips over the seamy underbelly to reveal its more wholesome, innocent overbelly.
All is not perfect in this strobe-lit Eden, however. Take Alice and Charlotte (Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale), two college grads toiling in low-paying publishing jobs. Alice, a shy, studious girl, can't seem to get the attention of the guys she's interested in, so Charlotte advises her in sure-fire ways to win men's hearts -- like using the word "sexy" wherever and whenever possible. This results in such ill-advised statements as "Scrooge McDuck is so ... sexy," a classic Stillman line that Sevigny delivers with classic Stillman deadpan wit.
While Charlotte delivers tiny jabs at Alice over vodka tonics, some Harvard classmates are engaged in conversations of their own: Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), an ad agency executive who's been blackballed from the club under a "No Yuppies" policy, pleads with the club manager Des (Chris Eigeman) not to throw him out, while Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) and Josh (Matt Keeslar), both lawyers, discuss the deeper meaning of what Josh breathlessly calls "the disco movement." Eventually the group comes together, in vintage Stillman fashion, over a conversation deconstructing "Lady and the Tramp."
Like all of Stillman's movies, "The Last Days of Disco" will appeal to anyone who has a taste for talky comedies whose references are gleaned from New York magazine, Ivy League English Lit. classes and the Blue Book.
If there's something hermetic and too-cute about Stillman's work, it is made up for in some wonderfully refreshing performances. Kate Beckinsale, so sweet in "Cold Comfort Farm," portrays the treacherous Charlotte with patrician iciness and, as he was in Stillman's other films, Chris Eigeman plays Des with thin-lipped, cold-eyed hilarity. This very funny actor has mostly been seen in the films of Stillman and fellow indie Noah Baumbach, but it's time his talents had broader exposure.
Actors who shine in small but perfectly realized roles are Burr Steers as the bouncer of indeterminate continental accent, David Thornton as the weaselly club-owner and Matthew Ross as Alice and Charlotte's earnest, left-leaning colleague.
The world they inhabit may not amount to much, but these are the kinds of lovable and memorable characters that make a Whit Stillman movie such a singular experience.
'The Last Days of Disco'
Starring Chloe Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar, Robert Sean Leonard
Directed by Whit Stillman
Rated R (some elements involving sexuality and drugs)
Released by Castle Rock Entertainment
Sun score ** 1/2