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Film Review: Whit Stillman’s Wittily Precious ‘Damsels in Distress’ Grows Tedious
CHICAGO – The sly satires of Whit Stillman have cultivated a fan base that appears to consist largely of his fellow peers. Manhattan-based filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach and Lena Dunham have cited his subdued comedies as an influence on their own similarly mannerist yet considerably more accessible work. For many moviegoers, Stillman’s brilliantly constructed, emotionally distant pictures are easy to admire but difficult to like.
The young, upwardly mobile “urban haute bourgeoisie” that populate his films serve as the target for Stillman’s observational, deeply affectionate humor. These characters may have big vocabularies and even bigger egos, but they are ultimately no less vulnerable and naive than their fellow peers in the lower social classes. I’ll never forget the hilarious scene in Stillman’s best film, 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco,” where a group of twentysomethings utilize their long-winded skills of analyses to pick apart the intricacies of Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp.”
|Read Matt Fagerholm’s full review of “Damsels in Distress” in our reviews section.|
However, Stillman’s long-awaited fourth feature, “Damsels in Distress,” is the first one of his films that I can honestly hail as laugh-out-loud funny—at least for its first third. The writer/director’s colorfully worded zingers have lost none of their freshness and wit, yet they are given immeasurable punch by the peerless comic timing of his game young cast headed by “Greenberg” star Greta Gerwig. Exuding the ethereal dreaminess of Liv Tyler and the deadpan edge of Diane Keaton, Gerwig is a captivating screen presence. Stillman puts her bubbly spunk and crestfallen eyes to exquisitely good use in the role of Violet, a junior and would-be life force at an East Coast college that has recently turned co-ed. Violet leads a trio of girls on an impassioned mission to bring hope, dancing and cleanliness to the male-dominated campus while enticing students to visit her suicide prevention center with the promise of doughnuts. Gerwig is tremendously funny in scenes where her character’s condescension comes through when she’s supposedly at her most humble and well-intentioned. When one embittered student barks, “You think I’m going to kill myself and make you look bad,” Violet tenderly responds with the golden punchline, “I’m worried that you’ll kill yourself and make yourself look bad.” Violet’s need for control is so severe that she’ll openly welcome criticism but then shut out her critics before they have a chance to elaborate. Like the heroine of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Violet perceives herself as a “teacher and a leader,” yet in this case, her cult of choice is custom-made.
Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Greta Gerwig and Analeigh Tipton star in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress.
Photo credit: Sabrina Lantos, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics