One Day in Europe (15)

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Whit Stillman

*****

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.

There are moments of genuinely disquieting strangeness in James Marsh's feature debut, a southern Gothic about secrets tragically withheld. Its brooding atmosphere can be partly attributed to co-writer Milo Addica, who also co-authored Monster's Ball and Birth; this guy is plainly a specialist in the dysfunctional American family.

It stars Gael Garcia Bernal as Elvis, a young serviceman who, recently discharged from the navy, travels down to Corpus Christi, a small town in Bible Belt Texas, to seek out the man who fathered him. He turns out to be David Sandow (William Hurt), now a pastor with a wife and two teenage children, Malerie (Pell James) and Paul (Paul Dano). Ashamed of his former life, Sandow gives Elvis the brush-off, a fateful decision for all concerned, especially once Elvis seduces Malerie, and Paul gets wind of their romance.

Marsh handles this tale of forbidden love with such restraint that when, an hour in, an act of senseless violence interrupts the calm, one feels the film suddenly beginning to lose altitude. Amazingly, it survives, clinging to the fragile bond of trust that Elvis and Malerie have established, flying in the face of all reason.

The performances are outstanding: Bernal and James get right under the skin of the ill-starred lovers, and Hurt as the troubled pastor is terrific, far better than his flashy Oscar-nominated turn as the mobster in A History of Violence. All the same, because the milieu is so delicately observed - the lonely swamp where the lovers tryst, the jolly Baptist church where the pastor lords it over his flock - the subsequent change of mood seems just too wilful and grotesque. A little less Gothic might have made it a lot more convincing.

A rancid slice of American Pie-style gross-out, Waiting tries to create hilarity from the daily grind of employment at a chain restaurant. But whereas other workplace comedies (The Office is the ne plus ultra of the genre) turn personal animosities and perpetual boredom into something true, and therefore funny, this just piles up a dungheap of witless riffs on food, sex and restaurant clientele that are either borderline racist or homophobic.

Ryan Reynolds slouches through his usual charmless "cool" routine, while Luis Guzman (old enough to know better) obsesses over a staff game that involves exposing his private parts to unsuspecting colleagues.

As revolting as this is, it's no worse than any of the other feeble sallies the film sees fit to indulge.

This pleasant, undemanding inquiry into European disunity comprises four vignettes set in different cities on the night Galatasaray play Deportivo La Coruna in the Champions League Final.

In Istanbul and Berlin a plan to scam an insurance company comes unstuck; in Moscow an Englishwoman is mugged in broad daylight, then saved by a Russian fairy godmother; while in Santiago de Compostela a pilgrim has his camera stolen but finds no help from the local police. Writer-director Hannes Stöhr keeps the mood so light you can barely summon the energy to shrug your shoulders.

Anthony Quinn

(15)

Hannes Stöhr

*****

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