“Damsels in Distress” (2012): a mix of PG Wodehouse, Broadway, and non-dairy dessert topping

9 May 2012

Many of my friends are currently in end-of-semester grading hell, a period inevitably followed by the grade complaints, and thence by lying on the sofa in fetal position. To all of you I recommend you self-medicate with a dose of Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. Once you hear that the “prevention” sign keeps falling off the Suicide Prevention Center manned by Violet, Rose, Heather, and Lily, don’t you understand how therapeutic this film might be for you?

Topping the list of suicide prevention tips offered by these women are tap dancing, scented soap, eating doughnuts, and dating morons. I suggest that seeing this film is equivalent to such advice — and I offer it as medicine for melancholy.

There’s a trick to watching it. You may go in expecting something more like Stillman’s earlier films, Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998) — each of which follows its likeable, everyman protagonist into a strange subculture with its own mores and social codes. The comedy and drama of each film benefits by means of that contrast between subculture and a sense of “reality” outside it. Not so with Damsels in Distress. 

The trick is that this is secretly a just a frothy Broadway musical, except with fewer overt song-and-dance numbers, about a cartoony, P. G. Wodehouse version of college life. There is no outside reality, no representative from our own world. You might be fooled at first because it’s filmed like an indie, and featuring what Broadway cannot do: offer us lovely, up-close shots of Greta Gerwig’s lovely, serious face. But once you embrace the idea that this is an oddly 2012 incarnation of a Fred Astaire musical, with all the ridiculous non sequiturs and silly conversation (albeit with less singing), you’ll see why this is so therapeutic for those of us actually wrangling with the horrors of actual college.

I don’t make the Fred Astaire reference lightly, for he starred in a 1937 musical entitled A Damsel in Distress in which he sings and dances to the same “Things Are Looking Up” Gershwin number used here by Stillman. Moreover, with P. G. Wodehouse co-writing the script and George Stevens directing — and featuring a romance with a character named Lady Alyce Marshmorton, I think you can guess exactly what kind of silly romance might ensue. Now, imagine the same artists behind a current-day film, cast instead with a minor character calling himself Freak Astaire and a 20-something crowd of mumblecore actors who excel more at expressing their physical awkwardness than their dancing chops.

And Greta Gerwig, whom one could look at all day. She was the sole shining light in that execrable Greenberg, and here she steers between her work at the Suicide (Prevention) Center and her own plunge into depression. Or, rather, “I prefer to say I’m in a tailspin.”

Those quips! Every single line of dialogue is ridiculously delectable, just like a Jeeves and Wooster tale; we walked out of the theater kicking ourselves that we couldn’t remember very many of them. “We’re also trying to make a difference in people’s lives,” Violet (Greta Gerwig) tells her new friend Lily as she explains their work at the Suicide Center. “And one way to do that, is to stop them from killing themselves.” My favorite lines always underlined the film’s distance from reality, its silly anachronism. When the characters encounter an untrustworthy man, for example, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) proclaims him “a playboy, operator type.”

When we walked out, I said approvingly (making clever reference to this week’s episode of Mad Men), “It’s like a bowl of nothing but Kool-Whip.”

My partner disagreed. “It’s more than just Kool-Whip,” he said. “It’s also got a little bit of fruit and some crunchy bits.”

We loved it.

3 Responses to ““Damsels in Distress” (2012): a mix of PG Wodehouse, Broadway, and non-dairy dessert topping”

  1. J.A. Montalbano Says:

    It’s always healthy to map the fault lines between you and your film critics. I didn’t track with your “Greenberg” review at the time (can’t he be an execrable character in a sharp-eyed, witty film?), and while I appreciated Whit Stillman in the ’90s, I actually walked out of “Damsels” after a half hour of sitting uncomfortably with the small audience that responded to whatever he was going for with a deafening silence. (I can’t remember the last time I up and left like that.) The difference between the critics and audiences on this one is vast. (I suppose you fall somewhere in between.) While I find Noah Baumbach to be lucid and brilliant, Stillman strikes me as hopelessly adrift. (The idea of a young man not knowing his colors is probably interesting, but it’s not funny or entertaining just in an of itself.) Or maybe it’s just a simple equation of what was clever or funny to me 20 years ago simply isn’t anymore.

    We agree, of course, on Greta Gerwig. Anyone who saw her four years or so ago during her minor-league tenure in the Mumblecore movement (“Nights and Weekends,” for instance) knew she was special. Beware, though: At the “Damsels” screening, we saw a preview of a film that places her on the brink of the mainstream, and it looks like a thankless role along the lines of the new bumbling Drew Barrymore.

  2. neil Says:

    This is my most anticipated film of 2012, so I will come back and read our post after I’ve seen it (which might be quite a while from now ‘cos there’s not a big market for Whit Stillman out here in east Asia).

  3. […] dance films like Pina, Magic Mike, or Step Up 4: Revolution. Remember the weird finale to Damsels in Distress, in which Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody sing the deliciously goofy “Things are Looking […]

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