The second movie this year about the disco era, “54,” a chronicle of the notoriously decadent nightclub at its very height, is just as disappointing as Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco,” albeit for different reasons. Strong on ambiance and vividly capturing the circus-like, celeb-driven spot, this basically plotless movie suffers from a formulaic script that feels like a reworking of “Saturday Night Fever,” a conventional style, and a neat ending that sugarcoats the actual dramatis persona on which it’s loosely based. Even so, tyro director Mark Christopher gives the picture a brisk pace and a colorful, party-like mood that makes the experience painless and sporadically even enjoyable. Miramax release should enjoy a decent run in major urban centers, where young to middle-age viewers might be motivated to see it by nostalgia, but it’s not likely to play well in the rest of the country.
Taking almost the opposite approach that Stillman used in “The Last Days of Disco,”, Christopher focuses on the ambiance, color, music and costumes of a drug-oriented, hedonistic subculture but neglects matters of narrative and characterization. Unlike Stillman, who totally ignored the gay factor, helmer Christopher acknowledges the gays’ contribution to the ’70s disco subculture, although, with the exception of a few homoerotic scenes, “54” is straight in both senses of the term.
Using the format of “Saturday Night Fever,” but without the latter’s emotional honesty and richness of detail, Christopher focuses on a handsome, working-class youngster whose ultimate ambition — and perception of the American Dream — is to leave his drab Jersey City origins and cross the “bridge” to glamorous Manhattan, epitomized in 1979, when the yarn begins, by Studio 54.
In lieu of John Travolta’s blue-collar Italian-American, here the misunderstood rebel-hero is Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillippe), a naive, 19-year-old Irish-American whose mother died when he was 12 and who now lives with his severe dad and siblings — he’s close to sister Grace (Heather Matarazzo). Like many youngsters of his background, Shane arrives at the disco uninvited and “unprepared,” wearing the wrong outfit (a striped shirt), but his good looks and charm get him into the club, where he quickly and willingly absorbs its distinctive norms and values.
The rather thin, cliched tale concerns Shane’s fast rise from busboy to the “glamorous” job of a shirtless bartender. His mobility puts him in direct competition with his equally ambitious buddy Greg (Breckin Meyer), a handsome busboy who’s too short to work behind the bar. Very much in the manner of “Boogie Nights” (which is set in the same period), the studio and its employees soon become Shane’s surrogate family, particularly co-owner and entrepreneurial spirit Steve Rubell (Mike Myers), who runs the place in the peculiar style of a stern but understanding father.
Shane also befriends Greg’s Latina wife, Anita (Salma Hayek), a coat check girl who aspires to become a hot disco queen singer.
Like “Saturday Night Fever’s” Tony Manero, Shane is essentially an innocent, good-hearted kid, who aspires to find his place in the world by hooking with the right crowd, here represented by an attractive soap star (Neve Campbell), who shows slight romantic interest in him, and a bunch of Park Avenue types, decadent men and rich, older women like Billie (Sela Ward). There’s a sharply observed dinner party scene in which Shane and Anita, totally out of their element, are embarrassingly unfamiliar with Errol Flynn’s name when it comes up. Unfortunately, Christopher ignores the interesting class issue: how blue-collar men could build a career based on their charisma and sex appeal — at a price.
The script covers a short period, catching disco in the summer of 1979, at its very height, and observing it through its decline, a year later. All the melodramatic events appear in quick succession in the last reel, beginning with an old woman, Disco Dottie (Ellen Albertini Dow), who O.D.s and dies on the floor; cash money disappearing; IRS investigations after Rubell’s arrogant pronouncements, and his subsequent arrest and imprisonment.
This by no means suggests that the movie is messy. Approaching the club as a legit character, Christopher structures the action along 10 nights, each illustrating a major theme as the disco devolves from a celestial paradise to a lost one. To end the film on an upbeat note, a rather fake coda describes a post-prison homecoming party for Rubell, and Shane’s “rehabilitation” as a NYU business student.
Except for Myers, who brings some edge and humor to his role, the ensemble is appealing but undistinctive, mostly due to the shortcomings of the writing. The best way to experience “54” is to succumb to its exuberant music (a couple of songs are splendidly performed) and marvel at the ostentatious costumes (designed by Ellen Lutter), which showcase the crowd as preening peacocks at a grand costume ball.
With the assistance of Alexander Gruszynski’s lurid lighting, this is one big party movie, not as frivolous as Robert Altman’s “Ready to Wear” or as pretentious as Alan Rudolph’s “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” but not much deeper either. A more critical and resonant Hollywood movie about the glorious disco culture screams to be made.