REVIEW: Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress Drowns in Coyness
Damsels in Distress is Whit Stillman’s first film in 14 years: For those keeping track at home, that’s the equivalent of three four-year stints at an Ivy League college, plus one year of graduate school, plus one year of aimless backpacking around Europe bankrolled by daddy. How much you enjoy Damsels will depend on your tolerance for Stillman’s particular brand of duct-taped Sperry Topsider whimsy. It’s a comedy! It’s a musical! It’s a trip down memory lane to revisit the blissful confusion of our — or someone’s — college years! Damsels in Distress is all of those things and yet somehow less, as wayward as a second-semester junior who can’t yet decide on a major.
The characters and the movie itself seem lost in time, which is surely part of the point. Greta Gerwig plays Violet, the leader of a snobby three-girl clique at an eminently respectable East Coast college — it goes by the name Seven Oaks, and the campus is a cozy nest of Greek Revival buildings enhanced by a great deal of exquisite, sun-dappled leafiness, the kind of place that inspires nostalgia long before graduation. (The picture was filmed in Snug Harbor, on Staten Island, a clever use of location shooting.) On the first day of the new semester, Violet and her cohorts — the judgmental, upper-crusty Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and the flaky-cute Heather (Carrie MacLemore) — spot a new girl and immediately decide to take her under their wing: Lily (Analeigh Tipton) has just transferred from another school, and though she doesn’t seem particularly lost, she does have a wide-eyed Olive Oyl innocence that inspires protectiveness. And if you’re Violet, you’ll add a soupçon of passive-aggressive condescension. “Lily failed, or was unhappy, at her last school, but we feel she’s going to adapt beautifully,” she says as she introduces Lily around to her coterie of acceptable acquaintances.
The rest of Damsels in Distress follows the young women as they go about their college-life routine, which includes manning the campus “suicide center” (Violet is a firm believe that tap-dancing can cure all ills, including suicidal impulses), bat around lofty pseudophilosophical thoughts (“We’re all flawed; must that render us mute to the flaws of others?”), attend dances at the local fraternities (which go by Roman letters, not Greek ones, just to be different, I guess), and, most significantly, become depressed or at least just seriously confused by the guys in their orbit. Those include a grad student named Xavier (Hugo Becker), who sells the sexually innocent Lily one hell of a line of goods; Charlie (Adam Brody), a suave man-about-town who also hopes to put the moves on Lily; Thor (Billy Magnussen), a college student who has yet to learn his colors; and Frank (played, with a great deal of dopey charm, by newcomer Ryan Metcalf), Violet’s boyfriend, who isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but who is nonetheless possessed of the most startling blue eyes, an attribute he downplays disarmingly. (He deflects a compliment by asserting, with frat-boy earnestness, “I’m not going to go around checking out what color my eyes are!”)
Stillman — who also wrote the script — allows the story to flit from here to there, lighting on one comic idea after another like a confused bee, never sticking around long enough to actually pollinate anything. Discrete events and vignettes pile up messily: When Violet becomes deeply depressed over some romantic problems with Frank, the scent of a particular soap brings her back to her senses. The male students are punished by the administration after a Dionysian campus hootenanny gets too rowdy. The editor of the campus newspaper acts like an asshole. Violet practices her tap dancing. And so on.
The movie’s pleasures supposedly lie in its casual, disorganized nature, but the effect is a kind of studied dottiness, as if Stillman (whose last film was the 1998 The Last Days of Disco) were genuinely trying to say something but has simply forgotten what it is. Damsels does look quite pretty — that Snug Harbor location, coupled with DP Doug Emmett’s restrained camera work, sure doesn’t hurt. And Stillman does seem to appreciate Gerwig’s preternaturally honest, questioning face. But he doesn’t know what to do with her gangly-graceful physical and comic timing: She’s like a cartoon ostrich ballerina, yet Stillman doesn’t give her big moments any shape or structure, leaving her to flail hither and thither.
Tipton (who played the lovestruck baby-sitter in last year’s Crazy Stupid Love) is the most appealing of the bunch — her Lily is the right combination of sensible and open-hearted, and she has a radiant tipsy moon of a smile. But the movie’s lackadisical, shuffling feel doesn’t serve her particularly well. By the time Damsels in Distress winds its way toward its closing musical number — a singing, dancing outdoor ensemble rendering of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Things Are Looking Up” — its romantic charms, meager to begin with, have worn thin, like a tweed jacket gone threadbare at the elbows. The thing has the feel of a vanity project, lacking urgency — like the work of a gentleman filmmaker who doesn’t have to work.