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The Last Days of Disco

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Last Days of Disco

Starring: Chloe Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale
Director: Whit Stillman
Rated: R
RunTime: 113 Minutes
Release Date: May 1998
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Chris Eigeman, Matt Keeslar, MacKenzie Astin, Matthew Ross, Jennifer Beals, Robert Sean Leonard, Tara Subkoff, Burr Steers

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Would you believe that disco is dead? The clubs with long lines of people who had to beg the bouncers to admit them; the pulsating music that took the hordes of young far from their daily troubles; the throbbing rhythms that propelled John Travolta into stardom with his great film "Saturday Night Fever," now a mere historical curiosity making way for his darker, more cynical works. It's gone the way of the cha cha. Or has it? In the final scene of "The Last Days of Disco," writer-director Whit Stillman gets a contemporary subway car to its feet, passenger by passenger rising to boogie, then an entire station on the New York transit swinging to the beat. If the clubs are boarded up or metamorphosed into shopping centers filled with stores like P.C. Richard and Kmart, the music in our minds remains, a lasting tribute to the 1980s phenomenon that captured youthful hearts and minds throughout the west.

"The Last Days of Disco" is part chronicle of the era and part a witty, albeit all-too-precious focus on a group of privileged kids who had recently graduated from college. They now feel their way in glamorous entry-level positions by day and more gamboling positions by night. Some are well- off thanks to the subsidies they receive from their parents (who make no appearance); others are struggling to pay the rent and eager to get ahead in their careers. But financial worries take a back seat to their social concerns, about which they seem ready to talk endlessly like characters in an Eric Rohmer film when they are not bopping to the beat of such cadences as "Got to Be Real," "I'm Coming Out" and "I Love the Nightlife."

Being liberal arts graduates, they love to talk theory, and the hypothesis about which they speculate most is the merits of group social life as opposed to what one post-debutante considers a ferocious need to pair off. The female side is represented by Alice (Chloe Sevigny), a attractive blonde who may have been too nice while in college and thereby seems to have missed out on the wilder side of undergraduate life. She is repeatedly criticized by the sophisticated Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), with whom she works in a publishing house and shares a cramped Manhattan apartment. Charlotte, who is nothing if not painfully honest, cautions Chloe that everyone in college hated her for being critical, and in a purported wish to have her get ahead with young men advises her to throw the word "sexy" into her conversations with them. Holly (Tara Subkoff), the third roommate, is also quite attractive, and is used as a plot device simply to create a more crowded atmosphere in the railroad apartment the three divide.

On the male side Des (Chris Eigeman) has the role of an assistant manager of a disco, one who is criticized by the bouncer for allowing his friends to sneak into the club via a back door. Des claims to be gay and believes that he is, but he is kidding himself. Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) is an ad exec, one of those who must be ushered into the club clandestinely since the boss, Bernice (David Thornton), has a peculiar antipathy toward ad people. Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) has been dating Alice, who likes him because he is "serious about the environment" while Josh (Matt Keeslar), an assistant D.A., has a conflict of interest problem from his acquaintance with a man he is investigating.

While you need not have seen director Stillman's previous two films to understand this one, it's helpful to know that the director continues to pursue accounts of upper-crust young people who, despite their wit and clever repartee are nonetheless feeling their way through their professional and social roles in a fog like the rest of us. Stillman's "Metropolitan," made eight years ago, focuses on debutantes who haven't yet come out--they're still preppies with a way of life others may envy; while his middle offering, "Barcelona," centers on a nerdy American businessman living in Spain who is joined by his Naval officer cousin as they go off to court the local assortment of women.

Offbeat as always, the talk in "The Last Days of Disco" will be appreciated principally--perhaps only--by those who recall the mixed joys of their youthful days: the bull sessions in college, the networking, the complexities of dating and social hijinx that result from clashes within a tight circle of friends and associates. We learn quite a bit about the politics of the clubs, especially the need for junior execs and sales consultants to get their clients into the disco clubs just as companies make sure nowadays to find the best Broadway seats for their lucrative accounts. Those who recall the sophomoric discussions of more academic times will find the exchange which deconstructs Disney's "The Lady and the Tramp" especially amusing. Pseudo-philosophic one-liners abound such as Des's query, "Shakespeare says 'To thine own self be true,' by what if your self is not so great?" Alice's innocence comes across convincingly when she asks her current beau whether she can consider herself a virgin if no segment of her partner penetrated her, and we get collectively disgusted when this current boy friend, Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), tells her off for sleeping with him so quickly: "I'm sick of everyone's having sex on her mind--it lowers the I.Q." (This is the very person who pontificates on the rise of the environmental movement, which "began when Bambi's mother was shot by hunters.")

The fun cast and Stillman's clever writing make this admittedly slow-moving and talky film a pleasure to listen to and lovely to look at. In this age of "Godzilla," we should genuflect to works like this which are smart, witty and incisive, films which combine insight into social history with humor and linguistic grace. What more can you say when you reminisce about the eighties--or for that matter the seventies and sixties- -except that those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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