Metropolitan (1989)

USA

3.5*
Director: Whit Stillman
Screenwriter: Whit Stillman
Director of Photography:
John Thomas

Running time: 98 minutes

Tom Townsend is not very likeable. He pretends to have very firm ideas about literature and social structures, but prefers literary criticism to actual novels, citing his displeasure at the inherent inventedness of fiction. He reminds me a lot of Jesse Eisenberg’s character in The Squid and the Whale, with fewer father issues.

Tom lives on New York’s West Side and attends Princeton, but when we meet him during the cold winter holidays, wearing a rain coat over his dinner jacket, instead of a proper overcoat, we recognise that he does not share the wealthy lifestyle of the group of friends who, on the spur of the moment, invite him to attend a deb (débutante) party with them. Usually, he would avoid these kinds of events, but since he has little else to do, and he is virtually coerced by the most vocal and self-assured of the pack, Nick, into joining them, he goes along and intrigues the others – all of them in their early twenties.

We know next to nothing about Nick, and over the course of the film we get to learn very little, except that he has convinced himself that he has a good relationship with his absent father, though we can see he is deluding himself. His lack of expressiveness and straightforward attitude about the things he believes in and those he opposes are refreshing for one timid girl, Audrey, who quickly gravitates towards him. But Nick is blind to her attention and is still hooked on Serena Slocum, a girl who apparently, according to the gossip in the group, was dating as many as twenty boys at the same time.

At first, the group (designated as the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack”, or S.F.R.P.) seems completely isolated from the rest of society, an upper-class enclave that functions on its own, removed from the vast mass of people around them that populate Manhattan, and it is comical, reminiscent of Maggie Smith’s character in Gosford Park, when one girl declares that she “can’t stand snobbery or snobbish acts of any kind”, while someone outside the group is easily labelled as “riff raff”. But gradually, largely thanks to the character of Audrey, who is the most vulnerable, the group shows signs of humanity, the kind of social interaction that we can relate to, and thaws the very cold façade with which we are initially presented.

The film is mostly a kind of chamber film, consisting of dialogue-heavy scenes that involve only a handful of characters, discussing social interaction and gossiping about others. Very few laughs are to be had, and the most uproarious moment occurs when they decide to dance the cha-cha-cha. But the writing is very good and writer-director Stillman delivers many insightful gems that distill and persuasively relate social wisdom.

Metropolitan provides a nice snapshot of this segment of New York society and the decline and ultimate disintegration of the group is fascinating to watch, made all the more captivating by our realisation that it all takes place over the course of the winter holidays. “You go to a party, you meet a group of people, you think ‘These people are gonna be my friends for the rest of my life.’ Then you never see them again. Where do they go?” Asks an adult, a former Princeton man, towards the end of the film.

The film takes great care not to alienate the audience from the characters, but doesn’t do so to the detriment of the characters themselves, who remain complicated despite their failure to recognise their own faults. The actors, most of them amateur players, are very competent and deliver the lines with admirable self-assurance, though Charlie (Taylor Nichols) has some of the most cerebral lines and does not always come across as entirely convincing. Metropolitan strikes a more sombre tone than The Squid and the Whale, but its approach is perhaps more deliberately realistic and certainly worth a look.

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