Courtesy Photo
119 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, August 28, 1998
Written & directed by Mark Christopher

Starring Ryan Phillippe, Mike Myers, Neve Campbell, Salma Hayek, Sela Ward & Breckin Meyer

Cameos by Lauren Hutton, Michael York, Daniel LaPaine, Ron Jeremy, Elio Fiorucci & Thelma Houston

Generic sin and redemption story no match for lascivious disco backdrop

If you have seen the documentary about Studio 54 that VH-1 has been running three or four time a week all summer, feel free to skip the fictionalized film version, "54."

The picture, written and directed by Mark Christopher, a film fest darling making his feature debut, has a few delightful surprises, like a spot-on performance by Mike Myers as junkie egomaniac club owner Steve Rubell and a relentless soundtrack of actually good disco music.

But the decision to recount the urban legend of the hippest nightclub of all time through the eyes of a fictional bus boy was the wrong way to go. This archetypical dreamer from New Jersey is not remotely interesting enough to compete for screen time with a rogue like Rubell.

A suburban gas jockey who dumb lucks his way into a job at the club (Rubell thinks he's a hottie), Shane (Ryan Phillippe) is a bit of a dim bulb. Like Mark Wahlberg's character in "Boogie Nights," he's a white trash joe who loses his relative innocence and idealism when he enters a seemingly glossy, glamorous world that is in fact a demon pit of vices and damaged humanity when you pull back the curtain.

As astute as that might sound, the movie itself is little more than stock characters acting out a generic drama of sin and redemption against a lascivious backdrop that is far more interesting than the story it serves. Studio 54 was a Babylonian den of overindulgence, the disco to end all discos, and while the movie certainly captures the superlative fervor and allure of the club, it fails to do anything with it.

Shane works his way up the ranks from bus boy to bar tender (the coveted position at Studio 54, where the money was good, the drugs were plentiful and the sex was easy), along the way meeting the aspiring diva coat-check girl (Salma Hayek); the randy, coked-out record exec (Sela Ward); the girl of his dreams (Neve Campbell) and Andy Warhol, before the club's infamous and fatal run-in with the IRS sends him packing back to Jersey, humbled but wiser.

Yeah, whatever.

The question here is, why isn't "54" a biopic of Steve Rubell -- a cautionary tale of absolute power corrupting absolutely?

His story is similar to Shane's, and far more interesting for two reasons: 1) The intrinsically gauche Rubell turned into an emotionally void monster who brazenly cheated the government and took joy in demeaning people he didn't let in the club, and 2) his story is true. And, remarkably, Myers (yes, the one from "Austin Powers," etc.) might even have been up to the task. His version of Rubell is a veiled caricature, but he could have carried the movie, given the chance.

Phillippe ("I Know What You Did Last Summer") could be a decent actor, but his performance as Shane is flat, especially when compared -- as will be inevitable -- to the unexpectedly deep and subtle work Wahlberg did in virtually the same role (although it was much better written) in "Boogie Nights."

"54" does look great. It even rivals "Boogie" in terms of period-perfect production design, costumes, hair and make-up.

But as for writer-director Christopher, who has a two-picture deal with Miramax on the wanting merits of this product, all I can say is, better luck next time.

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