There are movies that aren’t for everyone, and then there are movies that ought to be stamped with a “Caution: Not for Everyone” disclaimer. Whit Stillman’s 1990 debut, Metropolitan, is not only about rich teenagers — a common one-note villain in most American comedies. It’s about old-money Manhattan teenagers who discuss Jane Austen, Charles Fourier, and Lionel Trilling. Who, free from judgment in their regal safe spaces, whine about the decline of what they call the “Urban Haute Bourgeoisie.” Who wear coattails and top hats. And who — least universal of all — attend debutante balls.
The ten Metropolitan characters who populate this niche — which Stillman himself fell into in the winter of 1969, during his unhappy freshman year at Harvard — demonstrate some recognizable adolescent traits, namely self-loathing and bookishness. But they speak in quaint, writerly fashion. They state directly how they feel, and use words like “terribly” and “tiresome” without irony; the most vulgar term that ever escapes their mouths is “slut.” Selling a movie about eighteen-year-olds who are far more interested in the plight of aristocrats than they are in sex is no easy feat.
Miraculously, Stillman’s $230,000 film ended up with a domestic gross of just under $3 million; less surprisingly, one-third of those earnings stemmed from its theatrical run in Manhattan, which lasted from August 1990 to March 1991. This is the ultimate insider film for the young, urbanite rich, and yet upon its 25-year rerelease Metropolitan still possesses a low-key, self-mocking charm that might win over even the most hardened self-made entrepreneur. That the film is semi-autobiographical imbues it with authenticity and passion. But it’s the vulnerability of the cast members themselves — most making their debut, and several leaving the trade soon after, becoming lawyers, psychologists, and in one case a minister — that renders these characters likable. By any textbook definition, they are snobs, but under Stillman’s shrewd eye, they emerge as rather friendly and inclusive. After all, in spite of being proud Upper East Siders, they happily invite lead character Tom, a soft-spoken Upper West Sider, to repeated gatherings.
Underneath its meandering dialogue and structure lies the most classic romance story arc: Virginal, shy boy obsesses over snooty girl, somehow missing obvious signs of interest from an equally virginal and shy girl. The center of the movie at first seems to belong to Tom (Edward Clements), but he’s so myopic that audience loyalty shifts to Audrey (the divine Carolyn Farina, who has, sadly, stopped acting). She’s a tried-and-true wallflower with an aura of radiance that neither she nor her group has yet picked up on.
The proceedings aren’t all sweet, and thankfully so. The group boasts two delightfully sour cads: Nick (the brilliant character actor Chris Eigeman), a liar and seducer who blithely pretends he’s anything but, and ponytailed lout Rick (Will Kempe), the only out-and-out villain. That ponytail, as well as a few striped suits and synthpop background music choices, are the only giveaways that Metropolitan — which is cheekily, vaguely set during “Christmas vacation, not so long ago” — was shot in the 1980s.
Metropolitan registers as timeless, not because these situations could happen to anyone, but because the characters’ mannerisms would seem amusingly affected in any era. Its influence is clear, having spawned a succession of small-budget films — featuring newish or non-actors — about young people who talk like philosophy professors. Though it borders often on preciousness, Stillman’s screenplay is snappy and light-footed, and the cast are wryly in the know about their characters’ more ridiculous inclinations. Metropolitan is even touching at times, especially when it remarks on how the debutante-going scene is beginning to dissipate; more commentary might have made it more searing.
Metropolitan suffers somewhat from its slipshod production values (noticeably shaky handheld tracking, crude editing, a cringe-inducing freeze-frame ending) and occasional triteness (Taylor Nichols’s character resembles a young Woody Allen to the point of irksomeness). But it might make you long for a return to movies in which teens have a greater vocabulary than their parents.
Written and directed by Whit Stillman
Opens August 7, Film Society of Lincoln Center