Friday 19 May 2006
It doesn't seem a minute since I was queueing to see this at the old Lumière cinema on St Martin's Lane. Whit Stillman's comedy of manners was actually released 16 years ago, and it's heartening to report that time has been kind to it.
That may be partly because what it chronicles - the Manhattan deb scene - was already an anachronism back in the late 1980s. Indeed, nostalgia is central to its charm, its characters being the kind of perennial New Yorkers who'll never get over the death of F Scott Fitzgerald.
Its focus is Tom (Edward Clements), an outsider in a rented tux who, despite his socialist leanings, is adopted by a group of privileged Upper East Siders as they swan around late-night dinner parties and lament the decline of the detachable shirt collar. Tom, obsessed with reigniting the interest of an old college flame, is also attracted to Audrey (Carolyn Farina), shy and bookish like himself; both tend to defer to the group theorist Charlie (Taylor Nichols) and the debonair rogue Nick (Christopher Eigeman), who divide up between them most of the screenplay's best lines. "Our generation is probably the worst since the Protestant Reformation," observes Charlie, keenest of all the friends to hymn the romantic attraction of failure.
That's the other reason why the years haven't withered its appeal: Stillman's discreetly droll screenplay is spiked with the sort of crisp epigrams and one-liners such self-involved young people like to bandy with one another. But then they also have the confidence to stroll through wintry Manhattan nights wearing top hat and white gloves, and talk authoritatively about Jane Austen without having read a word of her.
What's very curious, 16 years later, is the unfulfilled promise of its stars - none of the cast, including Nichols and Eigeman, went on to greater things, and Stillman himself has been invisible since making his third film, The Last Days of Disco, in 1998. Watching this witty debut again is enough to make you hope he'll one day come back.
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