What I wouldn’t give if filmmaker Whit Stillman would write one—just one—realistic character who doesn’t sound like a hip know-it-all from some far off alien planet. Stillman, the creator of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, is a master at placing arch, stilted dialogue into the mouths of his young actors, who almost always register as too smart, too hip, too articulate—and never as recognizable humans. While some toss around “Woody Allen” and “sophistication” and “droll” to describe his style, for me it’s movie anathema. His latest is no exception.
Damsels in Distress, his current experiment in self-consciousness, is set on the East Coast campus of Seven Oaks, a former women’s university gone coed, where frat humor rules, women are subjugated by cheating boyfriends, suicide attempts are on the rise and the arrival of a transfer student (Analeigh Tipton) piques the goodwill of a trio of do-gooder mavens (Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore) whose mission, while running a campus suicide prevention center for the melancholy, is to spread cheer through dance—their panacea for life’s woes. Uh-huh.
Violet (a poker-faced Gerwig) the leader of the group, is prone to wry, oddball musings on the perils of men and the pitfalls of love, taking an immediate interest in young Lily (Tipton), quickly made an honorary member of their clique. Also part of this feminist clan is snobbish, lovely Rose (Echikunwoke, very funny), who may be appropriating a faux British accent and is convinced that every man in sight is a “playboy operator,” and Heather (MacLemore), a ditz pining for a meathead stereotype named Thor (Billy Magnussen). The girls are bent on eradicating bad behavior, setting sights on campus jocks as social experiments, while trying to deter Lily from any type of male companionship, seen as the road to ruin.
The men, alas, are nothing but trouble, as when Violet catches brain-dead jock boyfriend Frank (Ryan Melcalf) in a dalliance, sending her into a “tailspin” of epic proportions that can only be cured by her love of the Sambola dance.
Meanwhile, Lily grows closer to scheming Xavier (sexy Hugo Becker), a French lothario fixated on “the Cathar way” of sex, and a smooth-talking poseur named Charlie (Adam Brody), suited-up at the local watering hole, posing as a “strategic development” executive but actually just another undergrad (and “operator,” according to Rose).
Also in the mix is a pretentious, budding journalist (Zach Woods) and editor of the college paper, an egomaniac, suspicious of the girls’ generosities. The whole thing climaxes with a bizarre musical number, the tone of which is either tongue- in-cheek or very sincere—you tell me—but by this time, the mess that is Damsels in Distress is such a kitchen sink that it’s anyone’s guess.
Gerwig does what she can with Violet, but the sensational indie actress whose presence dresses up so many films, seems, perhaps, misdirected here, delivering with monotonous (and often very amusing) aplomb in a movie satire missing zip, spark or speed. Even Tipton, the comely and appealing star of last year’s Crazy Stupid Love, suggests little.
The main problem with Damsels is that most of the time, it simply isn’t that funny. As with all of Stillman’s films, the flagrantly unrealistic and stilted dialogue, which never sounds anything less than written, suggests the filmmaker bearing down on every scene—he’s realism averse to a fault. And the obvious caricatures of frat boys are awkward, unfunny and repeated several times in vapidly dated monologues intended to generate big laughs, instead falling flat.
For some unexplained reason, Stillman is something of a critics’ darling and for that reason, I’m certain Damsels in Distress will receive a pass in the same familiar corners.