Still­man’s come­back odd, in­ge­nious — and ir­ri­tat­ing

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Go See - By John Bei­fuss bei­fuss@com­mer­cialap­

In writer- di­rec­tor Whit Still­man’s much-an­tic­i­pated re­turn to film­mak­ing, “Dam­sels in Dis­tress,” the lead damsel, Vi­o­let Wis­ter (played by Greta Gerwig, the for­mer “It girl” of the mum­blecore move­ment), at­tends a lit­er­a­ture class in which the pro­fes­sor is dis­cussing an early 20th- cen­tury Bri­tish novelist named Ron­ald Fir­bank.

I was un­fa­mil­iar with Fir­bank, so I availed my­self of a tech­nique too vul­gar for the world of “Dam­sels,” where the at­trac­tive and mostly ar­tic­u­late stu­dents who in­habit the cam­pus of “Seven Oaks Col­lege” ap­par­ently have no in­ter­est in tex­ting, Twit­ter, lap­tops or even cell­phones. I Googled him.

The En­cy­clopae­dia Bri­tan­nica, I dis­cov­ered, had this to say of Fir­bank: “His is a pe­cu­liarly fan­tas­tic and per­verse, idio­syn­cratic hu­mour. His wit largely Please see

de­pends upon the shape and ca­dence of the sen­tence and upon an ec­cen­tric and per­sonal vo­cab­u­lary.”

Per­haps Still­man is a fan of en­cy­clo­pe­dia en­tries, for this is a per­fect sum­ma­tion of the sense of hu­mor to be found in the in­ge­nious and ir­ri­tat­ing, plea­sur­ably fresh and painfully self- con­scious “Dam­sels in Dis­tress,” a movie with char­ac­ters as highly man­nered and styl­ized as those in a David Lynch film, though to much dif­fer­ent ef­fect.

“Dam­sels in Dis­tress” marks the end of a 13-year hia­tus from film­mak­ing for Still­man, who is ad­mired by many and scorned by a few for his three pre­vi­ous come­dies of the elit­ist ur­ban up­per class, “Met­ro­pol­i­tan” (1990), “Barcelona” (1994) and “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), now con­sid­ered mod­ern clas­sics.

True to the homonym of his first name, Still­man is as witty as ever. But “Dam­sels” may dis­tress fans who an­tic­i­pate an­other more or less be­liev­able por­trait of life and love among the well- ed­u­cated, well-spo­ken, well- dressed and well- off. As the Fir­bank ref­er­ence in­di­cates, the movie is in­ten­tion­ally un­real, with arch, ab­sur­dist di­a­logue that might work bet­ter on the printed page, in­side a reader’s head (think Woody Allen’s “With­out Feathers”).

The film fo­cuses on a tight-knit group of four rather for­mal girls, all named for flow­ers. The

★★★✩✩ ❚ leader is the ap­par­ently un­flap­pable but in­wardly dis­mayed Vi­o­let Wis­ter. Heather (Car­rie Ma­clemore) is sweet and pretty but rather dull. Rose (Me­ga­lyn Echikun­woke), the eth­nic mem­ber of the group, speaks with an English ac­cent, and ac­cuses all men of be­ing “con­fi­dence trick­sters” and “play­boy op­er­a­tors.” The new­comer and Vi­o­let’s ri­val for screen time is model-skinny trans­fer stu­dent Lily (Analeigh Tip­ton), who even­tu­ally ac­cepts much of Vi­o­let’s ec­cen­tric phi­los­o­phy, in­clud­ing the idea that fra­ter­nity mem­bers are more to be pitied than mocked. “They can’t be elit­ist,” Lily agrees. “They’re mo­rons.”

Much of the film’s most ef­fec­tive hu­mor in­volves the dimwit­ted broth­ers of the DU house. (A re­cur­ring gag is that Seven Oaks doesn’t have “Greeks”; it’s fra­ter­ni­ties use let­ters from the “Ro­man” al­pha­bet.) Thor (Billy Mag­nussen) is of­fended that peo­ple con­sider him dumb be­cause he never learned his colors; Frank (Ryan Met­calf), mean­while, is sur­prised to learn his eyes are blue. “I’m not gonna go around check­ing what color my eyes are!” he as­serts, as if he had been ac­cused of some sus­pi­ciously met­ro­sex­ual groom­ing habit .

The movie is con­structed, more or less, as a se­ries of in­ter­con­nected vi­gnettes, some of which work won­der­fully, some of which flop. DU broth­ers aside, the char­ac­ters typ­i­cally speak with a flat, some­times awk­ward af­fect, and are un­afraid of poly­syl­la­bles. Pleased with the com­pli­men­tary soap she col­lected af­ter a night at a Mo­tel 4 (cheaper than a Mo­tel 6), Vi­o­let praises “the salu­tary ef­fect of scent on the hu­man psy­che.” She also as­serts that “dance crazes en­hance and el­e­vate the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.” Un­for­tun­tely, this leads to an aw­ful final scene, in which the cast demon­strates Vi­o­let’s in­no­va­tion, the “Sam­bola!”

Does Still­man want us to squirm rather than dance? “I love clichés and hack­neyed ex­pres­sions of all kinds,” says Vi­o­let; does this “love” ex­plain why Still­man adds the most tired of all movie com­edy sound ef­fects, the yowl of a star­tled cat, to a shot of a frat boy fall­ing over a porch rail­ing? “Dam­sels” is like no other movie I’ve seen in some time; but even af­ter two view­ings, I’m not sure if that as­sess­ment is an en­dorse­ment.

“Dam­sels in Dis­tress” is at the Ridge­way Four.

— John Bei­fuss: 529-2394 Dam­sels in Dis­tress (PG-13, 99 min.) See re­view on Page 13. The Kid With a Bike (PG-13, 87 min.) A 12-year-old boy is aban­doned by his fa­ther in the lat­est film from Bel­gium’s Jean-pierre and Luc Dar­denne, two-time win­ners of the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. What to Ex­pect When You’re Ex­pect­ing (PG-13, 110 min.) The non­fic­tion best-seller in­spires an all-star en­sem­ble com­edy.

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