Criterion // 1998 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // August 25th, 2009
History is made at night.
Whit Stillman's third (and apparently final) film The Last Days of Disco is a good film that fell victim to bad timing. When it was released in 1998, it was coming on the heels of the terrible but much higher-profile 54 and just a year after the great Boogie Nights; the disco movement of the late '70s and its subsequent collapse in the early '80s had become somewhat well-worn territory. Stillman's film must have seemed like too little, too late.
Now, 11 years later, it's finally getting a shot at redemption courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
It's the early 1980s, and disco is on its way out. For Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale, Uncovered, Van Helsing) and Alice (Chlöe Sevingny, American Psycho), recently graduated publishing assistants by day and party girls by night, the nightclub is their connection to the world. It's where they meet romantic prospects both appropriate and inappropriate, from ad exec Jimmy Steinway (Mackenzie Astin, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie) to club co-owner Des (Chris Eigeman, Kicking and Screaming) to oddball attorney Josh (Matt Keesler, Waiting for Guffman). As the disco movement begins to fade out, the gang begins to realize it may be time to move on and grow up -- plus deal with the after-effects of the nightlife, including unemployment, venereal disease and possible criminal charges for some. Disco forever!
Writer/director Whit Stillman has always seemed like a writer first and a director second, and though his 1998 film The Last Days of Disco is perhaps his most technically accomplished and polished film it's still essentially a lot of intelligent characters and smart dialogue in search of a compelling story. That may sound like a major slight, but I don't mean it as such; I'm more than willing to watch an all-talk movie, and Stillman's voice is unique enough and his dialogue interesting enough that I really enjoyed Disco. It's just not really a departure -- or even a maturation -- of his previous films. If you hated Metropolitan or Barcelona, chances are you won't like this one, because Stillman's not exactly an acquired taste. You either dig him or you don't.
Comparing Stillman to Woody Allen would seem easy; both write talky films about educated New Yorkers able to discuss everything from politics to literature to the merits of Lady and the Tramp. Allen's films aren't really concerned with class, however, and Stillman's are obsessed with it. In Last Days of Disco, class struggles play themselves out at a popular New York disco, where who you know and what you do can grant you access or keep you out of the club. It's not the strongest metaphor for some of Stillman's usual themes, but it's also not what Disco is entirely about; the film is a mix of class satire, half-formed memory (based on Stillman's own experiences in New York around the same time) and social reflection on the "party's over" collapse in the early 1980s.
Of course, the main draw of The Last Days of Disco -- as with any Stillman film -- is the dialogue, and it's as witty and literate as its ever been. The characters in his film are educated and intelligent and are willing to talk like they are; sometimes, actually, they attempt to sound a great deal smarter than they are. The film walks a fine line between celebrating their intelligence and slyly mocking them for it. Like Woody Allen's characters (sorry to invoke his name again), the young bourgeois upstarts in Disco are almost too cerebral for their own good, able to banter like nobody's business but clueless when it comes to how to create and sustain meaningful relationships with others. It's no mistake that the two biggest outcasts (Sevigny and Matt Keesler) in the group are also the only two in touch with their emotions; they've got a chance at happiness that the others do not.
Disco marked one of Kate Beckinsale's first American film roles, and looking back on her performance now I'm not sure she's ever been as well-cast. I'm on record as not really understanding why Beckinsale is a movie star; she's pretty, but always seems cold and hollow in her films. The Last Days of Disco capitalizes on those qualities well; her Charlotte is the prettiest in her group (I don't think she'd have it any other way) but also casually cruel and something of a bully. She's like the lead Mean Girl. Her performance here suggests she might have had a solid career playing a specific type of character role; sadly, the allure of romantic leads and vampiric action star must have been too great. Sevigny, on the other hand, is always kind of great (if you don't believe me, watch one episode of Big Love) and here gets to play a softer character than she's usually given. She looks beautiful in every shot -- maybe '80s disco glam agrees with her -- and does a nice job with a character who's smart and talented but insecure enough to get lost in the party scene.
Criterion does their usual bang-up job on this underrated film (between this and their release of Metropolitan, Criterion has released two-thirds of Stillman's filmography). The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer looks terrific -- bright, sharp and free of any visible artifacts. This is Stillman's best-looking film, and Criterion's DVD does well by the photography. The 5.1 audio track is strong, providing a solid mix of Stillman's hyper-literate dialogue (making sure we don't miss a word) with the incredible, all-hits disco soundtrack.
Stillman and stars Chlöe Sevigny and Chris Eigeman sit down to contribute a commentary track; given who's talking, it's very subdued but still compelling. Stillman talks about how the project came about and how his cast came together (the studio was pushing for Winona Ryder in the Sevigny role) and only briefly discusses how his film was affected by other movies of the time -- chiefly, 54. Four deleted scenes are presented with optional commentary, but both the cut footage and Stillman's comments are pretty disposable. The original 1998 making-of featurette is included, but it's the standard promotional piece and offers no real insight into the film. There's also a gallery of still images and the original theatrical trailer.
The final bonus feature on Criterion's reasonably-loaded DVD is an audio excerpt of Stillman reading his Last Days of Disco novelization (released in 2000, two years after the film), called The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards. It's a somewhat indulgent project, but it does emphasize Stillman's gifts as a writer and suggests that the book could be a good read for fans of his particular style.
I remember seeing The Last Days of Disco in 1998 and liking it in a forgettable way; for me, it seemed like another trip to the "been there, done that" well for Whit Stillman. I was surprised, seeing it again 11 years later, how well it's aged and how much more resonant I found it to be. Now, the film feels as much like a tribute to the lost disco movement as it does the end of talky, smart, studio/indie '90s cinema. I'm a lot sadder about one than the other.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Still Gallery
* Book Excerpt