Whit Stillman’s first comedy of manners follows a group of young collegiates (the self-proclaimed “urban haute bourgeoisie”) as they navigate their way through deb season over Christmas break in Manhattan. Um, ivy league kids home for the holidays? Christmastime in Manhattan? Deb season? I’m already into it.
While the visuals blast you straight in to the carpeted living rooms of the Upper East Side eighties, the dialogue is the real art of this movie — it’s surprisingly fast-paced (especially for a movie that’s over 20 years old.) At any given moment there are at least three running conversations happening as the characters spar with one another about everything from Jane Austen to Fourier to their definition of the urban haute bourgeoisie (“UBH” for short). My favorite (and certainly the funniest) theory raised is that a privileged background inherently dooms one to fail. This idea leads to a pretty fantastic interview scene in a bar with a forty-something UHB who is living a self-described life of mediocrity. That said, most of the movie is the kids hanging out late at night in their parents living rooms discussing Very Important Shit. And oh, yeah, they also trip on mescaline and play strip poker. They’re still a bunch of college freshmen, after all.
The Nick Smith character was a stand-out for me (played by Chris Eigeman). Definitely the most dynamic character of the movie — we all knew someone like that in college, right? Charismatic and deeply committed to the idea of never taking anything seriously. Over the course of the movie we get to see Nick unravel… slowly but surely leading up to the famous “Polly Perkins” monologue, which most people agree is the best scene of the movie. I also loved the sweet and sincere Charlie Black (played by Taylor Nichols) who delivers some of the funniest lines. I couldn’t help but wonder if he might be a predecessor of Max Fischer…
Reading this interview with Stillman after watching the movie really enhanced my experience. It answered many questions I had, the biggest being about the time frame of the movie ( the script was based on the 1969 deb season, but set in an intentionally vague time due to budget). I also learned that Metropolitan was followed by Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), to create a trilogy of movies that follow the “urban haute bourgeoisie”.
I liked this movie a lot — mostly because the dialogue really challenged me. I’ve also never quite seen anything like it… underneath the hilarious highbrow observations, it’s really a coming-of-age movie. Utlimately, Metropolitan is equal parts The New Yorker and The Breakfast Club. Stirred, not shaken.
As for the Criterion Challenge series, I’m starting to think this was a pretty good idea. I definitely want to watch the other two in the Stillman trilogy now. I’m not sure what the characters from Metropolitan would make of me, but I feel smarter already.