Couch Trip

The Last Days of Disco 

When a character mounts an impassioned defense of disco culture in the last minutes of The Last Days of Disco, it may as well be taken directly from the mouth of this affectionate film's writer-director. And Whit Stillman crafted such a perfect portrayal of early '80s work-all-day, party-all-night yuppiedom that it manages to lend validity to a music scene that remains a blighted genre. Indeed, as the character points out, disco wasn't all about bell-bottoms, tacky lighting and John Travolta's dance moves. It was about a sense of community, and as this elegiac comedy fades out, you may start to miss it yourself.

Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale are positively luminous as Alice and Charlotte, friends out of necessity who work in the same book publishing house and hit the same exclusive nightclubs. They introduce us into a world that includes Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), an advertising executive who tries to gain leverage at his firm by sneaking clients into the club; Josh (Matt Keesler), an undercover agent with a history of mental illness; and Des (the tragically underutilized Chris Eigeman, a Stillman regular), a pompous manager at the club, all of whom act as lovers or potential lovers to Alice and Charlotte in the film's romantic merry-go-round.

Stillman's dialogue sparkles, whether it's Des defending the much-maligned term "yuppie" or Josh and Des debating the cultural implications of Lady and the Tramp. Everybody is hyperarticulate, as intellectually witty as Woody Allen characters, except that here they don't necessarily know they're being funny. And Stillman knows when to turn the humor faucet off and plumb the grime underneath. When Alice becomes infected with an STD — courtesy a one-night-stand with Robert Sean Leonard's callous hipster — it all but sounds the death knell of free love and ushers in the AIDS pandemic of Reagan's '80s.

The movie was released in 1998, the third in a semi-official trilogy of manners by Stillman (after Metropolitan and Barcelona) about bourgeois New Yorkers looking for love in the wrong places. It's a life Stillman lived himself, making no apologies for his characters' elitism, and The Last Days of Disco is his most autobiographical. (Incidentally, Stillman must have said everything he wanted to say in these three films, because he hasn't made one since. But the IMDB has him listed as a director-for-hire on the Christopher Buckley adaptation Little Green Men, currently in pre-production.) He cared so much for this era that he even wrote a wonderful novelization of the movie that I was hoping might be included in this Criterion DVD as the distributor previously did with the literary adaptations Short Cuts and The Furies.

But it isn't, and, in fact, the supplements are fairly disappointing. There's an informative commentary with Stillman, Sevigny and Eigeman, and there is an audio-only extra of Stillman reading the epilogue from his book. There are some deleted scenes that probably should have stayed that way. But it's the "making of" featurette that will have Criterion aficionados aghast: It's a five-minute promotional fluff piece, ostensibly to air on some cable network in between features, so lacking in insight and detail that it never should have been included.

But at least now, all three of Stillman's masterpieces are available on DVD, and, until he decides to bless us with another original work (somehow I don't think Little Green Men will be lionized on the same level), it's all we've got. And it should be cherished.

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