The good times don’t exactly roll in “The Last Days of Disco,” which is as interesting to watch for its serious disjuncture between style and content as for its cute cast and fabulous soundtrack. Whit Stillman’s stiff directorial approach ill suits the sensual ambiance of the club scene so intently depicted, and the mostly self-conscious, uptight characters seem to have made a left turn out of “Metropolitan” and walked through the wrong door to turn up in this flamboyant druggie scene. External trappings and nostalgia value of the music give Gramercy something flashy to promote, but critical and audience reactions look to be mixed, resulting in just moderate overall B.O.
Stillman’s third feature, “Disco” would actually seem to rep the middle installment of his trilogy, as it’s positioned chronologically between “Metropolitan” and “Barcelona”; in fact, one of the characters here takes off for Spain.
But whereas “Barcelona” stood as a considerable stylistic advance over Stillman’s debut, this one marks a disappointing retreat from his second outing, so clunky is some of his storytelling and direction.
Nonetheless, pic has its inviting qualities, which work their seductive ways during the initial 24-minute club sequence. One September in “the very early 1980s,” a bunch of friends converge on the hottest disco in New York, no doubt intended to closely resemble Studio 54, which will be the subject of another film later this year.
Much is made of the characters’ anxieties about getting past the velvet ropes and into the club, with one nervous young ad exec, Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), embarrassed that he can’t get two dorky clients in, although club assistant manager pal Des (Chris Eigeman) often helps him slip in the back door.
But if you’re beautiful, well dressed and female, you have no trouble being ushered into the inner sanctum, and such is the case for Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chloe Sevigny).
The girls were classmates in college, and whereas the gorgeous brunette Charlotte has a calculating, pragmatic view of social strategies and considers the Harvard guys she knew at school as creepy wimps, the pretty blond Alice is less ostentatious and more reserved; Charlotte, in fact, still alludes to her friend’s disastrous college social life and prods her not to come off like “a kindergarten teacher.”
Among the others in their set are Josh (Matt Keeslar), a rising star in the D.A.’s office, and Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), who takes an interest in Alice. While Charlotte and Alice float around the club, which is generally populated by figures far more exotic and outrageous than the leading characters, the harried Des seems to be in the midst of a sexual identity crisis; he upsets friend Nina (Jennifer Beals) by coming out, but later backtracks, saying, “I could be gay.”
Part of the film’s sense of dislocation, in fact, stems from the gay and druggie environment being foregrounded dramatically by sexually constipated preppies who engage in defensive debates as to whether they qualify as yuppies.
Retiring from the club for a while, film establishes the two young women as entry-level aspiring editors at an independent publishing house. They are determined to take an apartment together, with Holly (Tara Subkoff) as a third roommate, and the sharp-dressing, eye-on-the-prize Charlotte, who resents the “ferocious pairing off” she sees around her, is anxious to build up an intense social circle by throwing dinner parties and the like, despite the girls’ utter lack of resources.
Back at the club on Wizard of Oz night, Des finds hidden bags of cash destined for shipment to Switzerland. In short order he’s fired for letting people in the back door, then is reinstated; Alice is traumatized by contracting both the clap and herpes the first time she goes to bed with a man; Jimmy keeps trying to find ways to get into the club; Josh begins investigating the establishment for the D.A.; Charlotte is hospitalized; the club is busted, forcing Des to decide whether to testify against his boss; the publishing house is bought by Simon & Schuster, and “Disco Sucks” T-shirts appear, marking the end of an era.
The characters indulge in conversations that are just as arch and brittle as those in “Metropolitan,” but which sound bizarrely out of context when taking place against the backdrop of the hedonistic, anything-goes disco scene.
While Alice observes everything with a quiet calm that ultimately provides the film with its most sympathetic vantage point, Charlotte self-importantly prattles on, sharing every tiny notion that passes through her head. The young men, for their part, come off as chronically unhip, just the sort of guys who wouldn’t be let in the front door of a fashionable disco. And they’re all definitely drinkers, not druggies.
The strange fascination of the odd mix of characters and settings lasts for quite a while. Additional compensations include Beckinsale, looking incredible in a succession of black dresses, whose character can get on your nerves even if the actress doesn’t, and the less assertive but ultimately persuasive Sevigny, who was first seen in “Kids.” The physically similar guys are also attractive in an Ivy League way, with Keeslar standing out somewhat from the crowd as the most ambitious of the bunch.
But even when all else fails, there is the fabulous soundtrack. Anyone ready and willing to be nostalgic about the disco sound, even those who professed to hate it at the time, will happily lose themselves in the parade of 29 classic numbers on the track; the CD should be a huge winner.
Technically, the film is splendidly decked out; in particular, Ginger Tougas’ production design and Sarah Edwards’ costumes effectively capture the era. Lenser John Thomas’ lighting is fine, but Stillman’s rigid visual style keeps the camera locked down when you want it to be on the move.
In fact, the only sequence that revives the disco days with thrilling results is the final one, a flight of fancy that sees all the passengers in a subway car, then everyone out on the platform, break into dance as the “Soul Train” theme washes over them; it has the sort of mindless unity and sensual abandon lacking till then, and shows what the film could have been.