Written and directed by Whit Stillman
Starring Carolyn Farina, Edward Clements, Chris Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, Ella Thompson
There was one name that didn’t quite fit when the nominees for best original screenplay came out for 1990. You had Bruce Joel Rubin, who had written the phenomenally popular Ghost. They there were Woody Allen, Barry Levinson, and Peter Weir, all of whom had made their mark as writers and directors. But the fifth was an obscure name who had written (and directed) his first film: Whit Stillman. His nomination for Metropolitan certainly was unusual: it was a small independent film that made less than $3 million in the US. Why was he up there with the others?
Because, quite simply, he deserved it.
Metropolitan is about a group of upper-class New York college students during debutante ball season. Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) gets involved with the group as a way to spend time with Serena Slocomb (Ella Thomson), who he has a crush on, even though she’s seeing someone else. The cynical Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) starts to give Tom advice, as the group goes through the season, aware it is a dying tradition, but also too much a part of it to want to give it up.
The story goes through a passel of romantic complications, but it’s less a movie about plot than it’s one about dialogue. Stillman had a gift for it, and the characters are articulate and very funny, sort of a mix between John Sayles Return of the Secaucus Seven and half a dozen Woody Allen films. The words draw you in and make the plot only an afterthought.*
Of course, Stillwell was not going to win, but the nomination helped him to make more movies. His next, Barcelona, saw the same sort of people as in Metropolitan only with the added complication of being outside the US. It shared some themes and references to Metropolitan, and his third film, The Last Days of Disco, saw the social group involved in the disco scene.** There are references between the films (especially the first and third) and the two make up a thematic trilogy.
But, in the blockbuster world that came up in the 90s, the films were squeezed out. It didn’t help that The Last Days of Disco flopped, and it was 11 years until Stillman directed again. Still, the trilogy is filled with smart dialog and plenty of entertainment value.
*The acting also could have been better; most of the cast did not appear in much other than this.
**Whitman wrote a fascinating novel from the screenplay, based on the premise that one of the characters in the movie was writing about what the movie got wrong. The Last Days of Disco, with Coctails at Petrossian Afterwards, is usually listed as a novelization, but that conceit made it more than just a retelling of what was on the screen.