Metropolitan a Film Worth Resurrecting

Metropolitan (1990)
Directed by Whit Stillman
New Line Cinema, 98 minutes, PG-13 (some language)

Whit Stillman hasn’t made a film in a while, and one hopes it’s not because he has nothing left to say. His 1990 debut Metropolitan has been compared to a Jane Austen novel. That’s ironic, as his last feature was Love and Friendship (2016), which was based on Austen’s novel of that name. Metropolitan was the first of what Stillman called his “doomed-bourgeois-in-love” series. It was followed by Barcelona (1992), The Last Days of Disco (1998), Damsels in Distress (2012) and Love and Friendship. In each case, Stillman looks at groups he saw as in decline.

Metropolitan is sharply written and penetrates the world of Upper East Side socialites during the winter debutante season. They are the ultimate children of privilege, but are also children without a clue. They think of themselves as urbane, witty, and intellectual, though the latter is often the conceit of a deluded college sophomore.

The film begins when Princeton student Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) happens to be walking along a Manhattan street when Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) thinks he and his friends have commandeered a cab Tom had flagged. They insist he get in the cab with them, though Tom protests he hadn’t hailed a ride. Along the way, Tom is invited to a debutante ball.

Tom pronounces that he isn’t interested as he’s actually a radical Fourierist. And so he might be in a vague sense, but the bigger reason lies with the raincoat he is wearing on a freezing New York City night–he is the son of a single mother who struggles to keep him at Princeton. On a whim, though, Tom decides to attend. He instantly becomes a sort of mascot for the Shelly Fowler rat pack, though his soirées put a strain on his budget. The rat pack dresses to the nines: tuxedos, flouncy dresses, black tie, and strings of pearls. Were it not for the city externals, you might think you had walked into a Cary Grant movie.

The conversations are black comedy vapid and revolve around whether or not the preppy “class” has a future. Nick is the resident cynic in all things. We also met Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), who fancies himself a philosopher, though he’s of the sort who could talk himself out of tying his shoe laces. He prattles on, oblivious of the fact that he is uttering utter rubbish. There is also sad sack Fred (Bryan Leder) and Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), who has the body of a god, but an empty head and the morality of a jewel thief.

Sally (Dylan Hundley) heads a coterie of selfish, pampered, and often amoral young women. This includes Cynthia (Isabel Gillies), who shocks everyone by being proud of her libidinous sins. The one lady of virtue is pixyish Audrey Rouget (Caroline Farina), a kind soul with a crush on Tom, though he still pines for his highly
inappropriate ex-girlfriend Serena (Ellia Thompson), who is pretty much in love with herself.

Stillman shows the utter vacuity of the preppy class. They put on airs because they are essentially aping their absent parents. When so much is given with no strings attached, reflection is like Charlie, a matter of form over substance and rhetoric over detail. Even Tom admits he never reads novels, only about them. In an odd way, Metropolitan is a coming-of-age film in an era in which a way of life is allegedly coming to an end.

It is instructive watching Metropolitan now, because Stillman was wrong to see the bourgeoisie as doomed. We now speak of the “New Gilded Age,” and we certainly live in a time in which the upper classes have honed their let-them-eat-cake callousness. Rick Von Slonecker is now, metaphorically speaking, President of the United States. But Stillman got it so right to see the wealthy as devoid of class in any sense other than economic.

This film was nominated for best screenplay and that honor was well deserved, even though it did not win. This is a funny film, but of the kind that makes you clutch and groan out of the side of your mouth that is not laughing. Metropolitan is all the more effective for using actors who were and are not household names. We thus see the characters, not familiar faces.

Take a look. Those of us who aren’t wealthy are sometimes guilty of wallet envy. This film will make you glad that you have functioning brains rather than just an expense account.

Rob Weir

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