DAMSELS IN DISTRESS
Directed by Whit Stillman. Starring Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Carrie MacLemore, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Brody. 99 mins.
Rating: Two and a half/Five
In cinemas April 27
GRETA GERWIG’S INNOCENCE SHINES IN QUIRKY BUT INSUBSTANTIAL CAMPUS COMEDY
Crouching yuppie, hidden WASP, director Whit Stillman is an odd creature. During his twenty-two year career, he has only come out of hibernation for four films, the last three providing sharply written observations about the urban haute bourgeoisies as they experience stylized Jane Austen-like comedies of manners. And, as a Harvard graduate and godson to the sociologist who coined the term ‘WASP’, he has a wealth of material to draw from.
However, while Stillman’s flair for sharp dialogue and wonderful whimsy has survived his thirteen year long hiatus, the target of his satire seems to have become lost in a sea of endlessly repeated jokes, impenetrably affected characters and jazzy dance numbers. Damsels in Distress is prettily quirky and distracting, but Stillman has sacrificed his trademark dark humour for a more pastel palette.
Though for pretty pastel protagonists, petals don’t come more precious than Greta Gerwig. Playing Violet, the queen-bee of a ditsy and didactic collegiate bouquet made up of wary newcomer Lily (Crazy, Stupid, Love’s Analeigh Tipton), ‘British’ Rose and naïve Heather, Gerwig is a wonderfully wide-eyed combination of affectations and eccentricities. Heading up the group’s naïve, doughnut and tap-dancing-based treatment at the college’s ‘Suicide Centre’ and their charitable ‘adopt a stupid frat-boy’ scheme; Violet’s smug, Stepford solipsism conceals a deep vulnerability.
As the young ladies navigate playboy “operators” (Adam Brody), suicidal tendencies and ambitions to create an international dance craze, Stillman piles on deadpan sarcasm and some superb one-liners, bringing into focus the girls’ youthful narcissism and delusion.
But for every zinging one-liner there are endless infuriatingly undeveloped plot points and unrealized hints at satire. The twenty-something’s insecure susceptibility to groupthink is constantly touched on, whether it be outward affectations, depression, idiotic fraternities, cultish religions or potentially demeaning sex fads, but none is explored in detail. Neither are the characters, who – apart from Violet – remain emotionless shells at best, and farcical, colour-confused idiots at worst. Even the date of the film’s setting remains vague, further adding to the confusion: who is Stillman talking to, and who about? (Or should that be about whom?)
For a film called Damsels in Distress, this light and insubstantial comedy plays it far too safe.