A film that raises laughs even with its end credits, Whit Stillman’s whimsical campus comedy “Damsels in Distress” is an utter delight. Making a welcome return to helming after a long sabbatical following 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco,” Stillman proves he still knows how to write crackling, articulate dialogue for quirky preppie characters whom he loves laughing at as much as with. Pic’s young cast, led by Greta Gerwig, features enough up-and-coming names on its roster to pull in a younger demographic to supplement Stillman’s older fan base, which should rescue “Damsels” from the niche, upmarket margins.
Sweet-natured Violet (Gerwig, “Greenberg”) and her coed coevals Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke, “24,” “That ’70s Show”) and Heather (Carrie Maclemore, “Gossip Girl”) are college students on a mission. Dedicated to making Seven Oaks U., their alma mater, a more fragrant and pleasant place, they seek to combat the Neanderthal male populace’s body-odor problem by promoting good hygiene, and stoically accept it’s their lot in life to date frat boys far more stupid and less good-looking than themselves. After all, as Violet says in one of the pic’s many quotable lines, “The tendency, very widespread, to always seek someone ‘cooler’ than yourself (is) always a stretch, often a big stretch. Why not instead find someone who’s frankly inferior?”
Among their other projects (Violet’s lifelong ambition is to invent a new dance craze) and philanthropic enterprises, they run the suicide-prevention center on campus where the doughnuts are free, but only to anyone verifiably depressed. Accompanied by Lily (Analeigh Tipton, “Crazy Stupid Love,” “America’s Next Top Model”), the newest addition to their clique, they’re willing to rush to the aid of anyone in a tailspin after a recent break-up, their survival strategies usually revolving around the advisability of dating uglier, stupider men than oneself.
Violet’s help backfires on her when one student, Priss (Caitlin Fitzgerald), takes up with Violet’s own intellectually challenged b.f., Frank (Ryan Metcalf), a frat boy so dim he literally doesn’t even know the color of own eyes. At least he can identify colors, though, unlike his buddy Thor (Billy Magnussen, superb), who has been educationally handicapped by his pushy parents’ insistence that he skip kindergarten. Later, Violet connects with Charlie (Adam Brody), one of Lily’s beaus, who like Violet is not all he seems and has a gift for reinvention.
Pic is chockfull of daft digressions and sweetly silly subplots, but the ensemble goes at it all with such deadpan rigor, it plays like vintage screwball comedy minus the pratfalls, apart from what must be one of the most uproariously funny suicide attempts in recent film history. Positively boiling with sharp, almost casually dispensed zingers, repeated phrases (Rose is constantly on a suspicious vigil against “playboy or operator types”), and dialogue that might not be so funny when repeated in isolation but is hilarious in context, Stillman’s screenplay is a thing of beauty.
Helmer’s comic timing is likewise right on the money, but in a largely self-effacing, quietly efficient way that recalls the old-school craftsmen of Hollywood’s golden age, like Howard Hawks in a breezy mood. Given the pic’s retro feel, it’s entirely appropriate that the climax tips its hat to Fred Astaire with a dance scene modeled on the Astaire-Joan Fontaine rug-cut from “A Damsel in Distress” (1937). One can’t help but wonder what Stillman would do with the budget for a full-on musical, but even though this unfolds in the same well-heeled milieu he’s previously explored, there’s a freshness here that suggests his 13-year hiatus from directing hasn’t done him any harm. Those inclined to dislike Stillman’s work won’t be persuaded otherwise by “Damsels,” but fans will be more than satisfied.
Shot on HD, the pic doesn’t have the same glossy, glassy prettiness of Stillman’s earlier film-shot work like “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco,” but it’s still executed with pro polish by lenser Doug Emmett. Extra credit is due costume designer Ciera Wells and “special fashions” by Krista Blomberg for kitting Violet and her friends out in just the right kind of prim but interesting A-line frocks and neat accessories that endow them with a pleasing mix of glamour and ladylike dowdiness.