Sunday, April 8, 2012

Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman arrived on the scene in the early 90s with such moderately witty films as “Metropolitan” and “Barcelona,” then disappeared for the better part of a score. On the basis of his new film, the staggeringly unfunny “Damsels in Distress,” he’s quite welcome to stay away. This arch, twee picture stars Greta Gerwig as Violet, the leader of a tetrad of coeds (Rose, Heather and Lily – laughing yet?) who try to help the young women who come to their “suicide center” (the middle panel reading “prevention” keeps falling off, ho ho).

One problem with this scenario is that Violet herself – while possessed of a thesaurus-like vocabulary – is obviously nuts, not to mention imposing and insinuating, and it wouldn’t take even the meekest mouse in the student body five minutes to tell her to go fuck herself. But none of the students at Stillman’s fictional Seven Oaks University seem to notice. This is a movie where 20-year-old collegians think the name Xavier starts with a “Z,” or don’t know what color their own eyes are. I can’t guess what comment Stillman thinks he’s making about American youth, but these kids are beyond dumb; they’re virtually catatonic. Good satire – like all forms of humor – must be grounded in reality; these ideas wouldn’t make the cut in the humor column of the campus newspaper.

“Damsels in Distress” is the sort of stunningly unfunny movie you watch in a state of stupefaction, slack-jawed to think somebody somewhere greenlit this script as a go picture. (It’s dispiriting to think of the ideas that will never be realized so that this movie could be.) Gerwig showed in “Greenberg” that she’s a capable actress. What a waste to watch her reduced to reciting, mostly in a flat monotone, Stillman’s thudding, self-impressed dialogue. Here is a movie that never uses one word when five will suffice.

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