April 11, 2012

MOVIES: Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2012)

It's been 14 years since Whit Stillman's last film. After a series of abandoned projects and financial struggles, he's back with Damsels in Distress, and it's not nearly at the level of his fine work in the 90s.

The setting is Seven Oaks College, where a group of young women headed by Violet (Greta Gerwig) run the campus Suicide Prevention Center; Violet's philosophy is that dancing -- tap dancing, in particular, but all forms of popular dance, really -- is the key to boosting the spirits of the suicidal. The new girl on campus is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who isn't terribly convinced by Violet's theories, but joins her group anyway.

We follow the romantic misadventures of the four, watch as Violet attempts to singlehandedly create a new "international dance craze," and learn about the sexual quirks of the Cathars. But mostly, I'm afraid, we sit in astonishment at how heavy, leaden, and plodding the movie is, with none of the lightness or charm that marked Stillman's earlier work.

That's largely due to casting. Stillman's dialogue is fizzy stuff that needs to fly with the lightness and speed of screwball comedy, and no one here has the right touch. Gerwig is the worst of the bunch, and since she's at the center of the movie, we're in trouble all the way through. Adam Brody comes closest to the proper style, and Megalyn Echikunwoke gets more laughs than the script deserves with her repeated chastisement of men for being "a playboy, an operator type."

There are a few jokes that work -- a riff on whether "Xavier" is spelled with an X or a Z that turns into the sad story of the forgotten Xorro, a warning sign at the Prevention Center that "donuts and coffee are for the suicidal ONLY!"

But there are too few of them, and even they don't muster much more than mild smiles. By the time we get to the final dance number, we're no longer capable of being charmed, even if the number were up to the job of doing so.

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