Courtesy Photo
3 stars 107 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, May 29, 1998
Written & directed by Whit Stillman

Starring Cate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Matthew Keeslar, Robert Sean Leonard, Jennifer Beals, Jaid Barrymore & Tara Subkoff

Stillman's loquacious characters take on the Me Generation

Sardonic and loquacious screenwriter-director Whit Stillman makes conversation movies, so it's a little ironic that he's chosen the earsplitting atmosphere of a Studio 54-like nightclub as the center of the action in "The Last Days of Disco."

In his third film about young Americans navigating the shallowness of the 1980s Stillman's characters, always so sophisticated and chatty, somehow manage to wax catty about each other and philosophical about their world even here under the deafening din of an endless disco beat.

A strong ensemble piece, it features Chloe Sevigny ("Kids," "Palmetto") and Kate Beckinsale ("Cold Comfort Farm," "Shooting Fish") as two recent Hampshire College grads who have moved to Manhattan and into a life of sleepy publishing house day jobs and late nights at their favorite disco haunts.

Chris Eigeman (from Stillman's "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona"), Robert Sean Leonard, Mackenzie Astin and Matt Keeslar play a circle of slightly older, attractive but egg-headed fellas that the girls fall in with.

A master of subtly engaging dialogue and giving fascinating depth to deliberately trite characters, Stillman's understated style is to let seemingly trivial conversation dominate his stories, so what these six people do in the course of the film -- sex, roommate issues, a little embezzlement from the night club Eigeman works at -- is secondary to what they say on the surface and what they feel underneath.

Sevigny, the more vulnerable and virtuous of the two central girls, is a constant victim of Beckinsale's jaded, egoistic and underhanded way of life. But their friendship is all she has for the time being.

The movie's closest thing to a main character, she finds herself trying to change to please her friends -- abandoning her bookish personality to catch men on Beckinsale's advice, only to be reprimanded later by one of the guys for playing bimbo.

They're all terribly clever (or at least think they are), frank and articulate, offering almost retrospective asides on the fate of disco while disco is still alive. They're yuppies in training and vigorously debate the merits and definition of "yuppie." They'll argue anything, as evidenced by a psychoanalytical quarrel over "Lady and the Tramp," in which one character opines that the movie encourages women to invest romantically in parolees and bad boys.

But Stillman's characters are always damaged to some degree, and his stories are ultimately about their insecurities, which they all unknowingly wear on their sleeves.

If all of this sounds a little prosaic, "Disco" may not be the film for you. But to his fans (color me guilty), Stillman is like a sardonic Anton Checkov, a man to whom dialogue and repressed emotion are everything.

As a writer he knows his characters well enough to give them all subtle layers that come through to the audience almost subconsciously. As a director he focuses much more on these characters than he does on faithfully re-creating the disco era, which here is little more than an interesting backdrop with a good soundtrack.

And Stillman knows his audience -- fans who are paying attention will notice characters from "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona" making cameos (and just never mind that this movie takes place before the other two).

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