A group of young upper-class Manhattanites are blithely passing through the gala debutante season, when an unusual outsider joins them and stirs them up.A group of young upper-class Manhattanites are blithely passing through the gala debutante season, when an unusual outsider joins them and stirs them up.A group of young upper-class Manhattanites are blithely passing through the gala debutante season, when an unusual outsider joins them and stirs them up.
Which is one reason why Whit Stillman's debut film, "Metropolitan," is so refreshing. By taking a more sympathetic, inside look at a group of affluent East Side Manhattanites home from college, Stillman makes a case for an underlying core of goodness beneath the Thurston-and-Lovey veneers.
Making the foray into their world for us is Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), literally and figuratively a red-headed stepchild in this world of privilege, having little money (his big secret, which he guards carefully with the help of mass transit, is that he lives on the West Side) and a defensiveness about his place in high society he manifests by adopting the stance of a disapproving socialist, though in reality he is more than a little too shallow to feel anything that deeply.
The truth of Townsend is immediately obvious to members of an upscale social set that call themselves the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, but they take him in anyway because he knows their world and seems like a good audience. Running the group is Nick Smith, who you can call a snob, as well as sexist, obnoxious, and of late, rather weird. Just don't call him tiresome, or you'll get an argument.
Nick is also a good guy beneath his preppie bluster, a fellow who champions Tom and breaks down Tom's highminded resistance to joining their circle with snarky logic ("You'd rather stay at home and worry about the less fortunate, but has it ever occurred to you you ARE the less fortunate?") He also has real values he honors, sometimes at no small risk to his nose. Chris Eigeman plays him with such panache you understand why Stillman kept using him in his movies; Eigeman's delivery is a thing of wonder, especially with lines that sound a mite too polished for instant expression. He can speak of his stepmother as "a woman of untrammeled malevolence" and make it sound like the most natural phrase in the world.
Another familiar face from Stillman's movies is Taylor Nichols, who plays Charlie Black, who when we first see him is stumbling through an explanation of why he believes in God and you do, too, even if you don't know it, and later on offers his own alternative definition of the preppie elite as the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, i.e. the UHB. "Is our language so impoverished that we have to resort to acronyms of French phrases?" a woman asks.
Charlie's more of a preppie snob in his dislike for Tom, though as Tom trifles mildly with the affections of a woman in their circle, Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), we understand Charlie's attitude. The movie is most fun as a platform for Eigeman and Nichols' pithy one-liners, and there are many great ones, but the complex relationship between Audrey and Tom is what gives the movie its plot and much of its interest.
It's bizarre how Clements and Farina vanished from the movie scene right after making their accomplished twin debuts. Farina, with her fetching dark eyes and wry, timid smile reminds one of Molly Ringwald at her pre-"Pretty In Pink" peak. Clements is good as a character that guards himself closely, with a scholarly front that falls apart fast.
Pressed on why he doesn't like Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park," Tom admits he hasn't read it, just that he doesn't like it from reading critical essays about it by Lionel Trilling: "I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism - that way you get both the novelists' ideas and the critics' thinking." "Metropolitan" is full of quotes like that, the product of young people who think they know more than they do but aren't quite bad beneath their smugness. It's not a film of great depth or revelation; Stillman isn't so interested in dissecting his creations as he is in giving them room to express their ideas, goofy and grand. His first film does exactly that, pulling off the twin feat of having cinematic fun and giving a preppie an even break.
- Mar 4, 2006