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.
13 January 2011
Normally I focus on movies as if I’m having sex with them: I open up all my perceptive faculties and focus intently. But during Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg I had to sit with my laptop and send a few angry emails. And in retrospect I am even angrier that this is on anyone’s Top Ten list (and it is); it’s an exercise in female self-degradation akin to watching Chasing Amy (1997) or In the Company of Men (also 1997). I’m especially angry because Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) is such a good film, and because Greta Gerwig (below) is so talented in contrast to Ben Stiller, whose main contribution is that he allows himself to be neither as attractive nor as slap-your-knee funny as in all his other vehicles.
When the movie just focuses on Gerwig’s face, it sings. In a number of shots we simply watch her character, Florence, in a series of un-selfconscious moments — driving, for example, and looking expectedly at other drivers as she waits for them to let her merge — scenes she handles with such utter charm that we get to know her even without dialogue. In fact, she spends much of her time driving, as she works as a personal assistant for the wealthy Greenberg family. But then the narrative takes her down into the pit of hell via a semi-relationship with the vile, much older Roger Greenberg (Stiller), her employer’s brother visiting from New York, who wants her but doesn’t want her. She doesn’t even want him, yet she makes herself available to him time and time again in scenes that truly rank among the most unpleasant sex scenes of the year. I find this film all the more disturbing because it was co-written by Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actor I’ve always loved and followed, and who has a very small role here.
Please don’t tell me I just didn’t get it — that Baumbach was trying to make me angry, that he’s trying to make us ask questions about why young, insecure women might subject themselves to relationships with fucked-up, middle-aged assholes. No, this film wants us to care about Roger’s rehabilitation by the end of the movie, and to see Florence merely as one part of that process. Roger may be a complicated and unlikeable character, but the minute he shows up he supplants Florence as protagonist and anti-hero. This is nothing like Nicole Holofcener’s brilliant and much-misunderstood Friends With Money (2006), which begged questions about women who feel the need to be nice. No, this is just a mean-spirited opportunity to trace a man’s personal crisis. Get it off your Top Ten lists and nominations rosters. I can’t believe Winter’s Bone has to compete with this.