How big a Whit Stillman fan was I in the 1990s? I followed the short-lived ABC sitcom It's Like, You Know... only because its lead was Chris Eigeman, who was so indelible in the three films Stillman wrote, directed and produced that decade, Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998). True, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco didn't captivate me quite the way Metropolitan did, but all three follow the winning Stillman formula: sly, ferociously funny jokes delivered by attractive young performers.
So I was excited when I learned Stillman was preparing his first film in 12 years, Damsels in Distress. Having seen it, I'm less excited, though the formula remains intact. Also intact is a familiar Stillman theme, elitism, which was amusing when it was being voiced by the brilliantly clueless debutantes and beaux of Metropolitan. The shtick isn't executed as well in Damsels in Distress.
The film centers on some young women who, Pygmalion-like, seek to improve the boorish men of their college. The women's leader is Violet (Greta Gerwig, poised and droll). Also in the group are cynical Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), sweet Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transfer student who joins the others at the beginning of the film. As the plot unfolds, the women date various campus men and pursue other projects.
I laughed quite a bit as I watched Damsels in Distress, mainly because Stillman remains a sharp gag writer. I roared at these lines from a character played by Adam Brody, of The O.C. fame, about how homosexuality has gone "completely downhill": "Before, homosexuality was something refined, hidden, sublimated, aspiring to the highest forms of expression and often achieving them. Now it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts." The joke reflects Stillman's nostalgic conservatism - another ongoing motif - and is food for thought.
What holds the film back is the storytelling, which has a random quality. The women run - a suicide counseling center? Okay. Violet's keenest wish is - to start an international dance craze? Hmm. The women will improve the lives of people on campus with - tap dancing and hotel soap? If you say so. Other elements strain credulity, even in a farce, like a college man so unschooled he can't keep the colors of the rainbow straight. And some of the jokes are just lame, like one about clinical depression. "Have you been to a clinic?" someone asks. "Then it's not clinical depression." Eesh. That's barely a joke.
I found things to like. It's a good cast. The costumes - so many skirts and cardigans - are appealing. I enjoyed the numerous choreographed sequences, which include some big production numbers and a line-dancing scene set to Hal Ketchum's excellent country song "Small Town Saturday Night."
It's probably enough that Whit Stillman fans won't be bored. It's probably not enough for everyone else.