Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 23, 2012)
Back when Metropolitan became a critical success in 1990, it looked like writer/director Whit Stillman would turn into a rising star in the movie business. This never really happened. While Steven Soderbergh launched from his breakthrough Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989, Stillman’s career failed to ignite. He produced two more flicks in the 1990s but those didn’t achieve the same level of success as the Oscar-nominated Metropolitan and he didn’t direct any features at all between 1998 and 2011.
One night, Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) stands at a Manhattan street corner and finds himself invited to a local debutante ball after-party hosted by a group of upper-class college students. At this, they wear formal garb, listen to light jazz and debate philosophy and political tenets. The twist is that although Tom shares their intellectual leanings, he’s from much more modest financial means.
Despite that obstacle, the rich kids take to Tom and he becomes part of their circle. This mainly connects him with cynical Nick Smith (Christopher Eigeman) as his benefactor/main male friend and Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina) as his potential love interest.
This Blu-ray became my initial viewing of Metropolitan; I knew of it back in 1990 but never got around to seeing it. I wish I’d watched it then simply because I was much closer in age to the characters. I graduated college in 1990, so if I’d disliked it, at least it wouldn’t have been for age-related reasons.
Since I didn’t see the movie until 2012 and the ripe old age of 45, some of my feelings about Metropolitan may be tainted by the attitudes that alter as you get older. Obviously it’s a whole lot easier to identify with – and tolerate – pretentious college kids when you’re in the same bracket. When you get into middle age, their self-absorbed smugness becomes much more difficult to take.
Though I suspect the characters of Metropolitan would’ve annoyed me just as much at 23 as they do at 45. The personalities seen here live up – or down, if you will – to the stereotypes of spoiled rich kids who think they know everything and who do nothing.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Stillman received so much positive attention for this dull tripe. From the very start, Stillman doesn’t just wear his influences on his sleeve; he dons an entire suit, and that suit screams “Woody Allen”. The simple text of the opening paired with jazz music strongly evokes the standard Allen credits, and the setting/story plays as standard Woody with a younger cast.
Minus all of Allen’s wit and insight, unfortunately.
I’ve been critical of Allen over the years, as he’s had more than a few ups and downs. However, it doesn’t take much to realize that even a mediocre Allen movie surpasses the stiff, one-dimensional nature of Metropolitan. Heck, one need only look to another film from the same era as Metropolitan - 1989’s Crimes & Misdemeanors - for evidence of Allen’s greater skill in this regard.
Metropolitan feels like all of the Allen pretensions without much else to it. Of course, Stillman doesn’t limit himself to Allen allusions; he also wears his literary influences on his sleeve, as we get heavy doses of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen along the way.
All of these add up to a movie with little more to it than a series of nods to other, more talented artists and a trite, dull story. Buried beneath the smug socializing of its characters, we find a tale with a pretty simple romantic theme. Essentially the movie boils down to “Audrey loves Tom but Tom’s too dense to notice until the end”. Everything else comes across as window-dressing.
And pretty insufferable window-dressing at that. The characters seem so full of themselves that they’re tough to take, and we’re stuck with one fatuous conversation/monologue after another.
Granted, the movie does loosen up as it goes. The characters show a bit more self-awareness and the tone gets lighter as it concentrates more on the interpersonal dynamics. Unfortunately, at this point it’s too late. The film’s stiffness and lack of wit has left us adrift, and it can’t offer enough meat during the final act to bring us back onto shore.
The general amateurishness of the film doesn’t help. Shot on a low budget, I’m fine with the production values; much of the flick takes place in apartments, so it doesn’t need anything fancy.
Metropolitan loses points largely due to the consistently weak acting. Some fare better than others, but there’s not a single natural, believable performance in the bunch. All involved feel like Stillman recruited them from local college productions and he couldn’t get any actors with much real talent.
Ultimately, Metropolitan tells a slow, semi-pointless tale in a dull manner. I kept waiting for it to deliver some insight, wit or cleverness, but none of that ever arrived.