Damsels in Distress (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)


film damsels_75Unfortunately, the parts do not quite coalesce into a satisfying whole.

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Writer, producer, and director Whit Stillman was part of the remarkable “indie” movement that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Beginning with 1990’s Metropolitan, a brilliant Manhattan society comedy of manners, Stillman turned out an indie gem every four years. However, unlike the other tremendously talented filmmakers of that period who either went on to commercial success (names like Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, the Coen Brothers) or who lost their mojo and faded into obscurity, Stillman did neither. After making his most ambitious film, 1998’s Last Days of Disco, Stillman disappeared, moving to Paris and working on a few projects that never quite made it to the screen.

Stillman has returned with Damsels in Distress, a very arch farce set on the campus of a sub-ivory liberal arts college. The damsels in question are a transfer student (Analeigh Tipton, a runner-up on America’s Next Top Model) and the troika who take her under their wing (Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Carrie MacLemore). Their distress is the men in their lives: a French grad student (Hugo Becker), a suave “operator/playboy” (Adam Brody) and two delightfully dense frat boys (Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen). There is little plot to the film apart from the girls’ romantic travails and their “management” of a suicide prevention center on campus. The film’s other dramatic tensions revolve around Gerwig’s character’s attempt to create an international dance craze and another character’s struggle with differentiating between his colors.

The film has several strengths. It lampoons some of modern campus life. Why, exactly, are three students left in charge of the “suicide prevention center” when their preferred tools are aromatherapy and forcing the depressed to star in a musical revue? The school takes pride that it does not have a fraternity system; instead, it has “Roman letter” houses—frats in all but the Greek alphabet. Stillman brilliantly depicts the calculated cluelessness of the young. Characters naively place themselves in harm’s way and then are then surprised when bad things happen to them. His dialogue also perfectly captures the frat-boy bluster that covers a desperate longing for acceptance, and the bizarre, modern passive-aggressiveness about intelligence. The dim frat boys simultaneously want the girls to pity them for being dense and give them credit for “trying to learn,” both while insulting the intelligence of others. In general, as with Stillman’s other films, the structured, witty dialogue is the film’s strongest asset.

Unfortunately, the parts do not quite coalesce into a satisfying whole. The appeal of Stillman’s films may be the window they provide into slightly exotic worlds the conventions and situations of which are unfamiliar: Manhattan socialite society, falling in love in a foreign land, running with the Studio 54 crowd, etc. However, most viewers went to college and did so a lot more recently than this director. It is clear that the writer went to college some 30 years ago and has spent most of the intervening decades living abroad. Dozens of opportunities are missed to intelligently skewer college life and to anchor the dialogue and actions to “real” modern college experiences. Instead, much of the witty dialogue and whimsical situations could easily (and perhaps more appropriately) be quickly transported and adapted elsewhere.

The performances are also uneven. Several actors inhabit their parts and bring the dialogue—no matter how ridiculous—to life; others are simply acting out a quirky part. The biggest disappointment is Gerwig, who brings little life to her lead role. She delivers her outrageous lines with an alien-like flat affect that must have been the specific choice of the director, but is inconsistent with her character of the quirky campus misanthrope who has developed a small, devoted following.

When the jokes work in Damsels in Distress, the film is laugh-out-loud funny, spawning lines viewers will quote for weeks afterward. When they fall flat, they do so uncomfortably. They work marginally more often than not, though, so seek out Damsels in Distress. | Joe Hodes

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