Friday, November 7, 2008

What would Nick do?

Writer/Director Whit Stillman's 1990 indy gem Metropolitan features some of the sharpest film dialogue ever written. He wrote the screenplay off and on during the 1980s while he worked for a Manhattan ad agency, and supposedly sold his apartment to get the cash to make the thing into a movie. One of the ironies of Metropolitan is that it's a film featuring rich Ivy League kids lounging about in Park Avenue apartments, made on a shoestring budget and a prayer. It's a great example of guerrilla filmmaking. I first read about it in the pages of National Review years before I watched it as Stillman was something of a conservative darling back then. Writing in Slate in 2006 Austin Kelley subtitled it "the movie for the conservative in all of us." It might be more appropriate to call it the movie for the snob in all of us. How then is it such an endearing piece of cinema? Let me try to explain.

The "hero" of Metropolitan (and one of my favorite characters ever) is arch-elitist, arch-cynic Nick Smith, played perfectly by Chris Eigeman. Delivering Stillman's lines with absolute conviction he pulls off the impossible -- making us empathize with a lying snob. In contrast to Nick is the "less fortunate" Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), home for the holidays from Princeton, who first shows up in a rented tux at one of the debutante "deb" parties that are still a rite of passage for the daughters of the Manhattan elite. Rented tux says middle-class, but there's a shortage of escorts for the girls so Nick takes Tom under his wing despite the misgivings of Charlie Black (Taylor Jacobs), the elder statesman of the group. Tom and his socialist ideas are a curiosity to this group of monied prepsters who probably won't have to work a day in their lives. Much hilarity ensues and a burgeoning romance between Tom and sweet, insecure Audrey (Carolyn Farina) provides most of the dramatic impetus. Along the way Tom and self-proclaimed untitled aristocrat Nick (he dismisses the titled aristocracy as "the scum of the earth") prove to have more in common than they thought.

For one thing, as it turns out, they're both dealing with parental break-up. The parents of the Metropolitan kids are mostly an off-screen presence -- much talked about but rarely seen. Nick advises Tom, "The one thing you have to remember about parents is...there's nothing you can do about them." Wealth allows these almost-adults to live in a hermetically sealed world without adult supervision or interference, except for Tom who must share a cramped apartment with his mother. Their relationship is uneasy at best, which makes spending his evenings and early mornings with the upper classes seem more and more appealing. This brat pack moves from party to taxi to posh hotel ballroom and back again. The world is their oyster, but there's a palpable sense that that's about to end. Not only will the season end, and they'll have to go back to Yale or Vassar or wherever, but, they fear, the whole edifice of WASP old-money privilege is about to collapse. Nick worries out loud, "with everything that's going on this is probably the last deb season as we know it." Good thing he wasn't around for the meltdown of '08!

By movie's end facades have been stripped away, secrets revealed, insecurities brought to the surface. Tom comes to realize he isn't the anti-bourgeois revolutionary he fancied himself to be. Nick is just, well, lonely. Rarely has a film dealt so perceptively with the challenges of transitioning into the adult world. I might easily have despised these characters because of their privilege and sense of entitlement, but in Stillman's hands I find them likeable and not so different.

Movies are rightly described as a director's medium, but this is a writer's film. Whit Stillman's script is a bona fide classic. Metropolitan isn't a coherent defense of any political ideology, nor is it an apology for class privilege. What it is instead is an exquisite comedy of manners that conjures up nostalgia for a time and place that the opening title card announces is "not so long ago" -- a time and place that feels timeless irrespective of it's obvious 1980s pedigree -- more Jane Austen than William F. Buckley. At a time when change is in the air, it might be fun to ask "what would Nick do?" He would probably tell you to go to Brooks and buy some decent evening wear. After all, deb season is just around the corner. The nicest thing I can say about Metropolitan? It's a lovely film.

1 comment:

redeyespy said...

One of my favorites, too. Certainly one of the best social observances of modern cinema. I'm sure many viewers felt like the London Fog clad outsider in an elitist world.

Stillman is finally working on another film!