By Tony Schwab
The characters in “Metropolitan” are going out of style fast. They are still going to debutante parties in the late 80s. Their taste in art shows a nostalgia for aristocracy, even as they curse aristocrats for not having to keep up appearances the way the bourgeoisie do. Most directors would have nothing but hostility to characters like this, but Whit Stillman sees what is touching in their struggles. He knows that beyond the flawless exteriors that the characters live in, they are just as unclear about what they want as anyone in “Dazed and Confused.”
The rough plot line is simple: Tom Townshend, a committed undergrad socialist, falls in with a group of wealthy, snobbish Upper East Sider’s. He is getting over his love for Serena Slocum. Audrey Rouget, another member of the group, falls for Tom. Adding to the fun are Nick Smith, Sally Fowler and many other prepies, each of whom is very well drawn. A more detailed polite would take many pages, as over many viewings it becomes clear that each character has been manipulating events towards their own goals.
The film is well-written enough to be read as a screenplay. Each character, large and small, has their own voice. The dialogue can shift quickly from witty back-and-forths to insightful speeches about the nature of class society. There is a great sense of the way college students talk, with lots of name-dropping and a constant need to seem the most clever person in the room. When the movie goes through stretches that are very serious, such as when the characters worry about living up to the success of their parents, it feels totally organic.
The acting is great all around, but as usual Chris Eigeman is the best of all. As Nick Smith, he is the most at peace with his privileged place in life. He plays bridge not because he likes it, but because it is such a great symbol of wealth. He has an obsessive hatred of Rick Von Sloneker, a baron who he feels fails to live up to the standards of their class. As much as he can seem like a campy relic, Nick is allowed to have his noble aspects. His concern with standards includes a willingness to help Tom fit into the group and a devotion to entertaining his friends.
The film takes place on a Christmas break, and their is a real sense of something coming to an end. The characters realize that they may never be able to maintain the type of life that they have had growing up. This may leave some unmoved in the age of the 99%, but this is callous. Everyone has at some point feared the changes of adulthood and of society as it moves forward, and rarely have these feelings been as well captured as in “Metropolitan.”
Tony Schwab is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org