Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Review: DAMSELS IN DISTRESS: comedy of eras

The Heather-ish trio of college girls who take newcomer Lilly into their fold have are on a mission to prevent campus suicides by offering a place to come and talk about it, enjoy doughnuts and coffee and get into some life-affirming tap dancing. The leader, Violet has a lot of thoughts on the improvement of the human social experience including the pursuit of second-tier boys whose disadvantages provide a project for their girlfriends as well as a course in their own improvement. What emerges quickly in this strategy is the unstated advantage that the dowdy boys will also be less pursued by the girls' competition. Violet's ideas on redemption through dance go as far as her designing a new dance which she refers to as a dance craze before anyone else has taken a step of it.

College life stretches out as a series of frat parties, relationship shuffling and post adolescent soul searching. What's new? Well, what's meant to be new is the infusion of the mood of Fred 'n' Ginger era musical romance as well as a deadpan quirk all blended into a fifties college comedy and set today. How can this work? It doesn't, really.

Whit Stillman's spare rap sheet is a collection of gentle urbanity served with an archness to the concepts and wit of the pieces. He has outlasted filmmakers like Hal Hartley who established themselves around the same early ninties climate of deadpan intellectual ensemble comedies. But unlike the similarly pedigreed Stephen Soderberg, Stillman has ventured no further from his initial origins than the front gate. Whether this is from fear of risk or comfort is unknown to me but I think it strange that he is less known than one of his highest profile inheritors Wes Anderson who does the same thing only with the volume on eleven. Anyway...

So here's another Stillman comedy of manners with roots in Shakespeare's world of dissemblance. At first there seems to be a lot of unacceptable superiority that we're invited to agree with but soon enough this is dispelled. Violet's near autistic dryness of delivery is from something unnamed but symptomatic of autism. The girl who reveals this speaks in a tortured posh accent but gets some crucial things gratingly wrong (the frequently repeated word "operat-or" should be more like "operatuh"). This does get explained toward the end, and well. A lot of people on screen are playing appearance here and the pain that has necessitated it is clear. There is real depth beyond the icing. So why is it so listless and unaffecting?

On the one hand this all feels too tryhard. Violet is only interesting when she gets emotionally affected. This lasts long enough to engage us until her confidence returns and she blands up again. Until we learn the reason for Rose's grating assumed accent it is hard to accept anything she says but she gets so many lines. New girl Lilly, the sole female character begins with the kind of approachability that misleads us to think she will be the central character. When the scene comes up when she explains that she'd rather be normal than extraordinary she is wearing an outfit so exaggeratedly girly she looks like she's on her way to a birthday party for a five year old. Xavier's religious affinity is offered like a line but is clearly meant to be sincere and then his casual recantation of it just looks carelessly written (in spite of however much design is involved in it). The big frat house Roman party that leads to the banning of the frat house from campus is almost studiously tame and yet is referred to jokingly (but not sarcastically) as the end of civilisation. Masculine stupidity is packed into a running gag about boy students not knowing what colour is. Grrrrr!

Now, while according to the Amnesty International report on it, Wes Anderson is still the worst perpetrator of the quirk=depth fallacy, Stillman's sin here is probably that he doesn't go far enough. While Anderson just piles the eccentricity and "adorable" obstinacy etc until something works and the odd moment of gravity is awarded the Congressional Medal of Cinematic Vision. Stillman just keeps it at a simmer. When the sudden tying of threads happens it at least seems to have come from somewhere (which Anderson doesn't seem to care about).

There are two exceptions to this in Damsels in Distress. Charlie's rant about the cultural debasement of gayness killing its appeal for him hits just the right note to avoid it being cringey. The girls en masse have a run that their self-conscious femininity prevents from being more than a frustrated stride is performed so effortlessly that it's genuinely funny.

Less funny is ... the rest of it. But that's me. From the first dialogue exchange in this film I bristled and prepared myself against it. It does include some good performance and real wit. It is clear that much of what appears on screen is placed there with painstaking precision. But that's the problem. It's only interesting when something gets knocked over or smeared with something. Otherwise we get a nineties comedy of a fifties college ensemble piece and a thirties song and dance dressed up as twenty-tens archness.

Oh, and if you put Aubrey Plaza into two scenes with some appropriate dialogue, try taking her out of the shtick a little. Here she looks like Aubrey Plaza for hire. For an alternative see my review of Safety Not Guaranteed below.

Damsels in Distress is not rubbish it's just not for me.

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