[Originally written for Film.com, 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
Characters from Whit Stillman’s previous films, Metropolitan and Barcelona, turn up in cameo roles amongst the busy dance-floor scene-makers in The Last Days of Disco. Aside from stitching these movies together in the same milieu and class, these re-appearances have the effect of rounding off Stillman’s unofficial trilogy; as such, Last Days is an appropriately wry letting go, a sad-edged valentine to an endearingly absurd era in American culture.
Not that the movie is without Stillman’s brand of humor, which is very much evident in the serpentine conversations about the sexual politics of Lady and the Tramp or the homoerotic triggers contained in an episode of Wild Kingdom. Like his previous films, this one surveys a large group of characters, all buzzing around “the club,” the unnamed disco palace enjoying its last bit of heyday in the early ’80s. Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) lead us into this world; recent college grads, they work at a publishing house and share a ridiculously elongated “railroad apartment” in Manhattan. Flitty Charlotte is fond of reminding Alice of the quieter girl’s past and present failures, passing along romantic advice that proves disastrous.
Humming around these women — when they can get past the club’s imperious doorman — are the boys, trailing the scent of Harvard and yuppie ambitions. Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) is an advertising man, not quite classy enough to get in through the front door anymore, but slipping in through the indulgence of his friend Des (Chris Eigeman, an essential Stillman regular and one of the unique people in movies these days); there’s also a lawyer (Robert Sean Leonard) with an interest in collecting Scrooge McDuck paraphernalia, and a prosecutor (Matt Keeslar) who recognizes the disco world for the utopia he’s always dreamed of: a place where like-minded people may share intellectual interests and brotherly camaraderie.
One of the things I like most about this movie is its elliptical, not-quite-spelled-out style of storytelling. There are gaps that we must fill in ourselves, which keeps the momentum falling forward and the audience on its toes; sometimes the film is like a group conversation in a dark, noisy club, where narrative points are lost when someone turns his head away but you get the gist of the story anyway. This approach even heightens the poignancy of Alice’s story, as we begin to suspect that something bad may have happened to this relatively innocent girl, and then realize with slow-dawning certainty that what we suspected is true. She’s the most heartbreaking character in Stillman’s movies, and a sure sign that this director’s wit does not obscure his grasp of human frailty.
Stillman gets the texture of the disco twilight just right, and he turns the frantic desire to be allowed into the club into a useful metaphor (money won’t guarantee admittance, but style will). The music is also nicely selected, with a raft of thumping songs but not the ones that have been overexposed already in movies. The one thing Stillman doesn’t quite capture is the pleasure of dancing itself, until the final sequence. (Perhaps he means it that way.) He’s not a director of sensuality, not yet, anyway; the brain continues to be the body part of primary interest for Stillman. In The Last Days of Disco, his reading of that organ is sharper than ever.