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Last Days of Disco

Review: Stillman stumbles with 'Last Days of Disco'

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- After watching him crank them out for nearly 30 years now, it's an inescapable fact that you can't write a modern romantic comedy without a nod or two in Woody Allen's direction, and, though it's made for some wonderful, sophisticated movies, that doesn't always turn out to be a good thing. Allen's style of urbane, self-absorbed dialogue has so permeated our sense of what a "thinking person's" comedy should sound like, a lot of very talented writers unconsciously try to get away with a wall-to-wall pithiness that even Woody himself can't pull off successfully these days.

In a nutshell, Woody's people don't talk like real people, they talk like Woody Allen, and plot is often at a relative minimum while they blather on. Allen's films are a genre unto themselves, a genre that requires an intimate knowledge of the man at the helm of the picture in order for everything to stay afloat for two hours. When he's not there, you start wondering where the movie went.

Whit Stillman, who wrote and directed the deservedly praised comedy/dramas "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona," is no slouch in the comic perspective department, but even he has a tendency to let his characters lock onto a certain topic, then roll it over and over in their conversations as if they're preparing for a cooperative dissertation. You can manage this sometimes (as Stillman did in high style with "Metropolitan"), but sometimes the effect can be numbing and/or highly unconvincing.

"The Last Days of Disco" is a terribly erratic offering from Stillman, but I want to make it clear that I got some huge laughs out of it. They were just spaced too far apart, and, unfortunately, its single-minded dialogue and over-abundance of weak performances finally had me itching like crazy for it to end. Stillman's characters are, for lack of a better word, yuppies who want style, money, and comfort (There's even a hilarious scene in which they argue over the concept of exactly what a yuppie is, to not much of anybody's satisfaction). Oh yeah, they also wouldn't mind finding a sexy, knowledgeable partner to share their opulence with once they finally achieve it.

The movie (set in "the very early 1980s") centers around a group of young Stillman-ites who spend their evenings at a trendy New York City disco. Regardless of the title and trappings, though, Stillman doesn't seem all that interested in the dynamics of the disco scene, or else he simply doesn't have anything interesting to say about it. There's never much of a sense of release or abandonment when people start dancing, and their conversations at the club seem to take place a million miles away from any kind of party, mindless or otherwise. The disco seems more like a crowded living room where everybody's suddenly decided to get up and boogie. The endless discourses on sex, dating, work, and ambition could just as easily be taking place in a restaurant or on a bench in Central Park.

"The Last Days of Disco" theatrical trailer

4.4Mb QuickTime movie

I could handle that, though, if it weren't for the often unbearably weak performances at the heart of the film. Chloe Sevigny is the main culprit, playing a young editorial assistant at a large publishing house. Like every other character in the movie (part of the problem is that most of them are virtually interchangeable), she's lookin' for love in all the wrong places, but her job is often the foremost thing on her mind. She and her snooty co-worker friend, Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale, who I'll be getting to) have stilted, repetitive discussions about the ins-and-outs of early '80s dating, and just as stilted and repetitive discussions about how they're going to get ahead in their dead-end jobs.

Again, I don't mind the lack of plotting (I have a tendency to prefer dialogue-oriented movies, anyway), but these people talk and talk and talk, and never seem to grow in any discernible way. The central idea -- which also informs Allen's best movies, especially "Manhattan" -- is that these people are so smart they've come full-circle and can't really grasp anything at all, but I kept wanting someone to come to a realization, any realization, if it would mean doing something besides spinning their wheels in the big city mud of sex and money.

Sevigny, who's cute in a gawky sort of way but about as physically graceless as any actress I can think of, looks so uncomfortable she finally started making me uncomfortable, too. Granted, the character is supposed to be uneasy, sort of an ugly duckling who's hoping to become a powerful swan, but Sevigny's scrunched-up posture and "What do I do with my arms?" positioning verges on the unprofessional. She also cultivates a dull, heavy-lidded gaze that lends her the wasted bearing of someone who's in dire need of a nap. Something about her lack of gumption is appealing, oddly enough, but this role simply doesn't suit her. I didn't believe a word that came out of her mouth, mostly because it looked like she didn't believe any of it, either.

Then there's Beckinsale, who, verbally, anyway, is just about as weak. It was twenty minutes into the movie before I realized that this is the same woman who I just crowed over in my review of "Shooting Fish!" In that movie, she displayed a gregarious likability that I thought could serve as a springboard into real stardom. I continue to hope that stardom will happen to her, but Stillman's insistence on making everyone sound over-spoken-but-shallow sabotages her undeniable charm. Charlotte is designed to be an annoying know-it-all, and Beckinsale scores high on the annoying scale, but why make an actress with this much natural charisma negate it in favor of a simplistic character with such a limited amount of appeal?

The man in the film is portrayed by Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Austin, and Robert Sean Leonard, among others. The singular is intended, as all the males look, sound, and act so much alike, it didn't matter after a while which one was involved in a scene. They're all somewhat egotistical Harvard graduates in nice suits who want a lifestyle that's just beyond their reach. By the time Stillman runs out of (again, often amusing) things to say about the world these people inhabit, and tries force-feeding the movie a plot about the corrupt backroom dealings at the disco, it wasn't of much interest to me. Just a couple steps into the shallow end of the pool is enough for you to perceive the shallowness. Stillman wants to think that you can lay down and go swimming in it.

"The Last Days of Disco" contains bad language, assorted sexual situations, and one shot of a nude woman, but it's surprisingly subtle about any actual sex. There's also a decent pre-fab dance soundtrack from the period, if you're into that stuff. Rated R. 113 minutes.


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