Whit Stillman took a risk when he set his third film during (and titled it after) the disco era, whose erstwhile existence, from almost the moment it ended, has seemed to embarrass most Americans more than Watergate. One would think that in 1998, fifteen years after the death of this maligned musical movement, it could have been safely celebrated only with a protective sheen of kitschy detachment. So then how did Stillman pull off something as genuine and persuasively fresh as The Last Days of Disco, and why does it continue to sparkle, over a decade after its making, with more glittering facets than a mirrored ball? Maybe the answer is Stillman’s unironic affection for the period, for the music, and for his endlessly verbose characters, who live and dance through it.
Yet as in his previous two films—Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994)—Stillman lets his characters speak and behave within their cultural moment without ever marrying them to that moment too literally. For all the deft, bold, voluminous, comic-to-us-but-serious-to-the-characters talk in any Stillman film, the protagonists do not mire themselves verbally or visually in actual, happening-right-now politics or family obligation or any responsibility that might prevent them from walking—or, more importantly, talking and dancing—ever so slightly on air. Never in The Last Days of Disco or Stillman’s earlier films do characters invoke loaded names like Carter or Reagan or Mom or Dad. It’s true that Barcelona has a crucial subplot about anti-American sentiment in late cold-war Spain, but we basically glean these politics, such as they are, from the characters’ cocktail-soaked bull sessions, while for many the most lasting image from that film is the hysterical but moving sight of Ted Boynton (Taylor Nichols) reading scripture while step dancing alone to the song “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”
So if Stillman’s characters aren’t driven primarily by politics or familial duty, what are they driven by? What at heart do they do, and what at heart do they talk about? Well, in The Last Days of Disco, they go to the Club, and more often than not, they talk about the Club. It’s “the very early eighties,” and the Club is the social mecca of Manhattan. Stillman perhaps means to emulate the fabled Studio 54, but if so he knows enough about fable to cast his Club as a universal. From the way it’s filmed, with a shadowy back entrance in an alley and a front door perennially mobbed by anonymous wanna-get-ins, the Club could as easily be in the edgier Meatpacking District as in the more mainstream Midtown. Inside the Club, we find other universals that would resonate in any era: one is white, powdered, and snortable; another is a ubiquitous, scantily clad dancing slut named Tiger Lady; and, of course, there are the lupine, sneering bouncers and other gatekeepers.
Our eyes into the Club’s world are two ingenues, Alice and Charlotte, played by Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale. By familiar Stillman decree, this pair and most of the main characters are recent Hampshire or Ivy League grads. The demure but curious Alice and the coolly headstrong Charlotte have just-above-slush-pile jobs as readers in a publishing house, and only via subsidy from distant parents can they afford the cramped railroad apartment they share. At the ready to banter with and bed Alice and Charlotte are Des (Chris Eigeman)—he’s a Club manager who sleeps with female regulars and then breaks up with each by tearfully “realizing” in front of her that he’s gay—and Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), a fresh-faced striver who must sneak, in disguise, past the Club’s snotty doorman and owner simply because he has the plebeian gall to work in the advertising industry. A small-cylinder plot engine eventually revs up courtesy of Josh (Matt Keeslar), a lovelorn assistant district attorney who plans to bust up the Club on drug-dealing and money-laundering charges.
But who cares about plot engines? As always with Stillman, we are in it for the ensemble’s verbal-social thrusts and parries. Robert Sean Leonard, Jennifer Beals, Big Love’s Matt Ross, and dozens of others all get moments in the strobe light, but the star is inarguably the mood, the sloe-eyed but sharp-tongued tendency of Stillman’s characters to hunt down any silence within reach and fill it with personality. Such a tone carries Metropolitan and Barcelona too, but The Last Days of Disco—despite a title that suggests wistfulness or rue—continues to strike me as the most buoyant of Stillman’s three features. Where Metropolitan reaches its dramatic apex in a physical confrontation between the decent young Tom Townsend and the thuggish Rick Von Sloneker, and where Barcelona needs a Spanish terrorist to shoot and hospitalize an American navy man before the film’s resolution can be charted, The Last Days of Disco grooves to a bouncier beat.
Its closest artistic ancestor, for my money, is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Both are comedies of manners in which any one of the leading ladies could conceivably, at the close of the story, end up matched with any one of the leading men without our sympathies being vexed, so long as we can imagine that all these clever people will go on talking and interacting cleverly with one another beyond the final curtain or credits, eternally. And speaking of eternity, or at least longevity, the deadpan chestnuts of dialogue that have long kept Wilde’s funniest play from going out of date meet their modern match in The Last Days of Disco in the barbed honesty and timing of Stillman’s Gothamite rascals, who would surely stake their droll conversational claims on us at a present-day hot spot like Babbo or Gramercy Tavern as fluidly as they do at their fictional early eighties Club. In a typically apt exchange, the simmering Charlotte upbraids Des for his caddish ploy of feigning homosexuality to end affairs: “You’re not fit to lick the boots of my real gay friends,” she tells him. Des absorbs her words and without irony responds, “Well, I don’t want to lick the boots of your real gay friends.” When Josh warns Des that the Feds are wise to the Club’s backroom illegalities, he says that he’s sure Des isn’t involved in the shenanigans. “I consider you a person of some integrity,” Josh explains. “Except, of course, in your dealings with women.”
Stillman’s more contemporary linguistic brother in arms is surely David Mamet. In Mamet, it doesn’t matter that the characters’ heightened rants are fouler and more stilted than most real human discourse. Mamet’s people are talking from their souls, and in some parallel universe of truth, their words hit home and make us shiver. Stillman uses a similar ploy, but to comic and romantic ends. It is immaterial if we have never met a group of young people who have the collective, absurd verbal resolve and acuity to hold forth as often and for as long as Charlotte and Alice and Des and Jimmy and Josh do. We delight in their straight-faced, discursive tête-à-têtes about weighty topics like “The Tortoise and the Hare” or Lady and the Tramp or Scrooge McDuck because Stillman’s leading lords and ladies are all so damn (thank you, Mr. Wilde) earnest. And unlike in Mamet, when Charlotte and Alice and company do lash out at each other, they almost always return to one another’s side at the end of the night and ask for forgiveness. “Please understand,” they seem to plead, “I am still so confoundingly young.”
Regardless of the drinks they’re ordering, or the lost jobs they’re bemoaning, or the STDs they’re trying to dodge, Stillman’s protagonists in The Last Days of Disco are doing what supposedly upwardly mobile twentysomethings in Manhattan have always done: they are trying. They are like the proverbial ducks: finely feathered in public view but under the surface paddling their vulnerable little hearts out, looking for an A-number-one, top-of-the-list, king-of-the-hill chance to soar.
That, anyway, is my read of them, and of Stillman, who labors universally and commendably to make a place for everyone in his films. Witness in The Last Days of Disco the sweetly affirming cameos by each of the single most winning characters from Stillman’s previous two works, Metropolitan’s Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina) and Barcelona’s Ted Boynton. Their inclusion on the Club’s dance floor and in some of its bubbling conversations, along with the apparent contented success their characters have gone on to enjoy, bode well for Josh and Alice, the nominal hero and heroine of The Last Days of Disco. Stillman doesn’t choose to tie things off as neatly at the end as a Shakespearean comedy might, but the energetic closing scene on the subway—a precursor, maybe, to the similarly hope-charged train platform ending of Slumdog Millionaire—should leave no one in doubt as to his generosity of image and vision. Hip or not, and regardless of the era that sired us, we are all invited to the dance.
David Schickler is the author of the novels Kissing in Manhattan and Sweet and Vicious. He lives in Rochester, New York, with his wife and children. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2009 DVD edition of The Last Days of Disco.