I’m not big on Wes Anderson movies. Basically, it’s Rushmore (1998) and that’s it. I like to think of myself as having a rather wide appreciation and enjoyment of comedy–maybe not so much on the low-brow stuff–but the long pause and blank face holds no comedic power for me. The confused face, yes, but the dumb, medicated look you’d find on one of Judith Jarvis Thomson‘s people-seeds is nothing. I don’t find nothing funny.
Lily (Analeigh Tipton) has just arrived as a transfer student at Seven Oaks University. In no time at all, she’s scooped into a cabal of females with strange policies on men. Their leader and Jason Schwartzman stand-in, Violet (Greta Gerwig), has strong views on most things including her view that it is her duty to fraternize with men who are inferior to her so that she might raise them up to her level. It also has the benefit of reducing the risk of suicide, which is often break-up-related. She runs the Suicide Prevention Center with her cabal-members and roomies Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Violet is dating absolute moron, Frank (Ryan Metcalf), while Heather dates color-ignorant Thor (Billy Magnussen). Those guys are both members of the Roman Letter Fraternity “DU.” From then on, things get a little unsummarizable.
Oh, I get it! They’re dumb. They’re all so stupendously dumb but in varied shades of eloquence. That’s the running joke throughout the film and one that doesn’t find much favor for me. The rest of the comedies feel like they came off the back of a series of notecards written during director/writer/producer Whit Stillman‘s brainstorming session.
This comes through with the super odd humor of the film. Violet wants to start a dance craze. Rose says the words “playboy” and “operator” in a sometimes Indian-infused, sometimes not, British accent that sounds remotely funny. Then there’s the just plain randomness humor. Lily doesn’t know what artichokes are? What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?
This is emblematic of a consistent problem I had with the movie. It would end the scene (according to normal theories on punchline or establishing essential elements) then add a few lines, like the totally pointless ignorance of an artichoke and then fade out. That had to happen half a dozen times. Maybe not always as irrelevant as that. One time Violet and Heather are having a pretty funny discussion about Thor’s ignorance of the names of colors and when that ends, Lucy comes in, Violet asks her where she’s been, and Lucy says “at the library” or something like that. Fade out. What?
Wait a second! You were supposed to give a payoff just then. You’ve got an anal sex joke and you’re going to let that hang in the air–so to speak–for like half an hour before you address it? No, sir, that is not allowed! I was expecting something uproarious and I got absolutely zilcho. The joke, then, is that the audience knows what he means (though he never says it) and that what’s happening is beyond the pale.
But that breaks another rule. In a movie, what is said must be taken as fact. Someone says there are flying aliens, there are flying aliens. What is not said, is not known. Lily takes what Xavier (Hugo Becker) is telling her with some dubiousness, which is fine. But then fade out, fade in, Lily leaves the house and walks normally about 10 feet down the sidewalk, fade out. Wait, did I misunderstand the premise? No. Stillman just doesn’t know how to tell a joke.
Near the end, it lands this teaching point in the penultimate scene that cried out to me as annoyingly unsubtle. Kind of like the end of some South Park (1997-) episodes when Kyle or Stan says “You know, I really learned something today…” But the South Park guys know that they’re breaking a rule and that’s become a running gag. In the movie, it was a sound piece of social commentary worthy of discussion and debate, but you can’t just say it. You’ve got to prove it and gently nudge us towards our own self-discovery.
Another issue is that the two leading ladies, Gerwig and Tipton, can’t carry the film. Either that or their characters aren’t nearly interesting enough to carry the film. They don’t have the positive, loving charm. More like the quirky charm of a 70’s art deco chair you bought for your dorm room so you’d look trendy but somehow keep carrying around from place to place to fill your ever expanding space.
I don’t think Stillman knew what it wanted to talk about. If it stayed with the marketed premise–dating people who were at a lower level than you and then bring them up a peg through training–then I think it’d be a solid-to-great movie, but it went, instead, for understanding the characters. That only sounds like it isn’t a problem. The key word is “instead.” You can’t understand why a character does what it does if you don’t spend time with what it does do. To establish the premise, much more work than a single line of dialogue was required.
I usually don’t notice bad directing work, but I did here. These days, there is no reason for a movie to look cheap. If they can do Act of Valor (2012) for $12 million, a personal comedy like this should be a cinch even for $3 million. Instead, you’ve got some rather elaborate tracking shots that are poorly staged. He’s got a number of musical numbers or dance sequences in the film, but doesn’t quite know how to put them together.
Ebert compared Damsels in Distress to P.G. Wodehouse–well actually, he compared the world to the Wodehouse world–well that’s insanity. Wodehouse is a genius of character and expression (more expression, than character) and Damsels in Distress excels at neither.
What makes the comparison to Wodehouse–and I imagine Wilde was nearby in his alludibles–so offensive to me is that the Damsels and the Distress in the film was the target of Wodehouse’s wit, not its beneficiary. These people were knobheads and the villains of the piece. The people who would spin schemes from which Jeeves would have to extricate Bertie with great wit and wisdom.
Instead, here, our straight-woman is overwhelmed and overpowered by what Wodehouse knew to be lunacy, but our world markets as hipster quirk. I’m so offended by the comparison. Yes, there are similar devises, but where Wodehouse makes the tone of world we live in perfectly clear with his beautiful style and the aid of time and nostalgia. So, while Bertie is a straight-man of sorts, and he clearly benefited from a blisteringly good education in re the quotables, there is no question that the facts of life remain but a mystery to old Bertram.
That is lacking here. The characters in Wodehouse don’t often have thoughtful breakdowns. I think I’ve got it: you don’t create a detached character simply by having them bluntly state their problem as if that means they don’t really feel it. These characters struggle with real thoughts of inferiority and social coping mechanisms. By being aware of them does not make them somehow unaffected. Wodehouse doesn’t go there. The peak of self-actualization was to remain out of trouble and/or wedlock.
That’s one of the reasons this movie lacks charming irreality. What is success for them? Not getting bummed is surely up there. No, Roger, you’re just wrong, you’re just so bloody wrong.
If I may go a bit circular, and bring back the unfocused aim/spine of the film. If, as the film is marketed and Ebert clearly accepted, this movie was about social rules and structure as supplied by Violet, then Stillman would have been well suited to watch, read, and listen to The Importance of Being Ernest and every other Wilde play. Throw in The Picture of Dorian Gray for good measure. Leave the children’s stories. He needed a refresher.
What Wilde does well and Stillman sputters at is showing the social conscience to be ludicrous and a figure of fun. All Stillman can do is make them vacuous but oddly eloquent. I say “all” when that is something of an accomplishment, but it’s not one I particularly prize or find to be funny in any way.
I stared dumbfounded at the screen for a solid 70% of the proceedings just at the sheer stupidity of the characters. Somehow, Napoleon Dynamite (2004) made that funny for me. Probably because, like Wilde and Wodehouse–I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry–they went all-in when creating their world. What is acceptable, plausible, taboo, or whatever are all neatly described through context and held to firmly. But here, the characters are stretched between their world and this where presumably sane people also exist.
I was looking at the poster outside with my friend after the movie and a guy walks past and says, loudly, “Don’t go see it.” “Too late,” says I. “Worst movie I’ve seen in the past 10 years,” says he. I’m not sure about that, it wasn’t Bride Wars (2009), after all. It just kinda sucked.