Whit Stillman’s Barcelona remains an all-time favorite of mine, probably half for purely personal reasons, having caught the romantic comedy on its opening weekend in the summer of 1994 with my wife of then one month.
It’s a near-perfect work, but I recall being fazed by the biggest laugh it got in that night’s Lawrence, Kan., audience: a punch line hinging on the word “pejoratively.” Who uses $2 words to tell jokes? Even Stillman’s Oscar-nominated debut of four years prior, Metropolitan, didn’t strike me as so ... well, Harvardissue thesaurus.
Some things never change. In Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s first film in 13 years, the laughs — and there are many — come draped in the likes of “pedantic,” “immutable,” “transformative.” And yet it’s the writer/ director’s most accessible work. The movie is scheduled to open Friday at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24.
Stillman specializes in wry, droll comedies set in prep-school, privileged worlds in which I’ve never lived, but would like to, even if he tweaks them as hard as he fetishizes them.
In the case of Damsels, it’s the fictional Seven Oaks University, known for its body-odor problem and a Roman-letter fraternity system that houses guys so dim, they haven’t yet mastered colors.
Out to bring rays of sunshine to its hallowed halls are three girls whose unrelentingly glass-half-full leader is Violet (Greta Gerwig, Arthur). She and her sidekicks school newly arrived transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton, Crazy, Stupid, Love.) in matters of clothing, music, men and volunteer work at Seven Oaks’ suicide prevention center.Says Violet, “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘Prevention is nine-tenths the cure’? Well, in the case of suicide, it’s actually 10-tenths.”
Lines like this flow throughout; these characters do not — cannot — shut up. But that’s what Stillman does best, whether the ladies argue over the spelling of “Zorro” or debate the plural of “dufus.” All his Damsels are up to the task, with potential radar-landing turns from unknowns Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke, both flowers among Violet’s group.
So much energy is expended on dialogue, however, that story is sacrificed, and Stillman seems unsure how to end this episodic affair. Taking a cue from the “Love Train” subway close of his last film, The Last Days of Disco, he again opts for a musical number ... followed by another.
While charming, these sequences aren’t the smoothest for a wordsmith, so their choreography is awkward.
Or should I say “maladroit”?