Damsels in Distress
Who knew anal sex could be so quirky and whimsical?
Roping together everything from college-comedy stereotypes (toga parties, campus cliques, etc) to the origin of dance crazes to Catharism, writer-director Whit Stillman's (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) first film in 14 years is daffy, arch and, ultimately, meaningless. How much you enjoy it will depend on your tolerance for Damsels in Distress' dry, self-consciously screwball sense of humor, and a storyline that seems to lose track of itself with alarming frequency.
Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is a transfer student to Seven Oaks College, a small New England campus that seems to exist in a leaf-dappled dimension out of time. Attracting the notice of passive-aggressive Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her bouquet of gal pals, the snooty Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and doe-eyed Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Lily is adopted and introduced to coed culture, and — to the inevitable distress of these floral femmes — boys. When Violet and her cohorts aren't ministering to suicidal students with tap dancing therapies (at the campus "Suicide Center"), they're attempting to rehabilitate the Neanderthal-like behaviors of their dim-witted frat boyfriends. This ignites a cycle of "Love Stinks" scenarios, in which Lily falls for Xavier (Hugo Becker), an older student with a girlfriend (and some interesting ideas about sex), Heather becomes smitten with the color-clueless Thor (Billy Magnussen), and Violet is dumped by dopey Frank (Ryan Metcalf) only to rebound with her campus nemesis, the editor of the school paper, Rick DeWolfe (Zach Woods).
"There's no logic to the algebra of love," says Violet early in the film. Nor is there logic to Stillman's flimsy and unapologetically digressive plotting. His script lurches from one oddball incident to another, like a homing pigeon dosed with LSD. If you can imagine what Mean Girls would have been like had it been directed by Jim Jarmusch, you're on the right track. Stillman is a product of the ironic '90s, and his film is caught in a nostalgic time loop that seems to have missed the tech bubble, the unhinging of American political discourse, economic collapse and rampant fear of terrorist attack. Instead, he continues to chronicle the neurotic and narcissistic psyches of affluent youth, channeling the sensibilities of P.G. Wodehouse while most likely inspiring some of the absurdist affectations of Wes Anderson.
The first half of Damsels in Distress is significantly stronger than the second. Stillman's affected and acerbically deadpan dialogue regularly hits the target as his characters brandish their deluded worldviews with idiotic aplomb. While none of these affectionate nutballs is mean-spirited, all are hopelessly self-centered, guided by a laughably misguided sense of superiority. And Stillman's cast is clearly in sync with his eccentric wavelength, shading their cartoonish roles with enough heart and soul to persuade. Gerwig is cool and contained, playing it straight even as she spouts Violet's most ridiculous and condescending opinions. Tipton is convincingly innocent and skeptical, bringing a naturalism that contrasts nicely with the film's goofier contrivances.
Eventually, however, Damsels in Distress loses its luster, as jokes are trotted out for the fifth time and character motivations fade. By the time the cast delivers a song-and-dance routine to George and Ira Gershwin's "Things Are Looking Up," the romantic charm has faded, the flat affect has become stale, and Stillman's precious anachronisms have grown tiresome. Only the instructional finale for Violet's Sambola! spares us from leaving the theater less amused than we went in.
In the end, Stillman's fitfully entertaining return to the big screen falls victim to same flaws as his characters. Damsels in Distress asks if its privileged eccentrics can overcome their self-obsessions long enough to properly engage with the world around them. By example, the film's answer is no. —Jeff Meyers
Opens Friday, May 4, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.