Criterion // 1990 // 99 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // August 9th, 2012
Nick: The titled aristocracy are the scum of the earth.
Sally: You always say "titled" aristocrats. What about "untitled" aristocrats?
Nick: Well, I could hardly despise them, could I? That would be self-hatred.
Whit Stillman's Oscar-nominated debut, Metropolitan, offers a glimpse at a time not so long ago. A time on the cusp of extinction. A time when college men brought into this world on the backs of old money had the chivalrous duty of escorting debutantes to fancy New York parties. While that may sound wholly un-relatable to just about everyone, Stillman's film carries with it the timeless themes of growing up, the importance of tradition, and the sad reality that all good things must come to an end. It's a comedy that not only celebrates the elite, but also humanizes them in a time when most of America despises them.
The Sally Fowler Rat Pack. The Urban Haute Bourgeoisie. Or just "U.H.B." Whatever you want to call them, this group of upper class college students is upholding the traditions of NYC debutante society. Each Christmas, debutantes and their escorts spend two weeks going to dances and attending after parties. This particular clique, which includes the likes of Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman), Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), Jane Clark (Allison Parisi), and Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina) are old pros. They're more than happy spending their evenings philosophizing and gossiping in extravagant New York apartments.
New to the group is Tommy Townsend (Edward Clements), whose middle class, socialist views directly clash with the lifestyle inherent in deb parties. His introduction into the group not only sparks a change in him, but ushers in the notion that things are evolving. Debutantes and rich parties are on the way out -- along with this tight group of friends.
Metropolitan, released in 1990, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Metropolitan lives on the couches of extravagant parlors and in the empty streets of New York City after dark. The characters are caught halfway between a Jane Austen novel and a William F. Buckley dream as they concern themselves with downward mobility, romantic honor, and the failures of socialism. Whit Stillman's film is, as he states in the commentary track, a rebuttal of Luis Buñuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie 20 years late. It also happens to be one of the funniest movies of the early '90s indie film movement.
Like many of the independent films released during the first half of the '90s, Metropolitan is a real chatty Cathy. Yet unlike Clerks or Reservoir Dogs, Stillman's characters are proper, elite, and Ivy League -- while still tremendously likable. They exist in a self-aware time capsule inside of a world that the director isn't terribly concerned with explaining. Instead, the focus is more on the emotional layers beneath the banter and the melancholy heavy lifting involved in recognizing the fading of tradition. Nick, Charley, and the rest of the U.H.B. know full well that this could be the last year for the debutante tradition that brought them together. Their group is slowly disbanding, outgrowing this whole racket while also falling in with rivals like Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe). Everyone's seriousness, juxtaposed with their youth, results in a strangely whimsical series of sketches, scenes, and vignettes in this unexplored world.
We experience the group through the blue-collared eyes of Tom Townsend, who happens to be diametrically opposed to much of what makes the U.H.B. so haute. His sophistication is derived from reading literary criticism instead of actual literature, and he spends much of the film flirting with Audrey (the deb he's assigned to escort) rather than actually pursuing her. Stillman's characters are all multidimensional and expertly crafted, but Townsend may be the most interesting of the bunch. Edward Clements plays the character with a cold, naive curiosity; he's a smart kid, but also one who is probably too insensitive in how he wields that intelligence. By the end of the film, Townsend transitions into a better version of himself, as the rest of the rat pack drift in new directions.
Metropolitan is a delightfully satisfying comedy. It's a quick-witted exercise in low budget filmmaking that served its creator well: Whit Stillman has gone on to make a handful of excellent films that exist within the same universe. It's still clear, however, that the film was made on the cheap by a relative newcomer (they shot it on Super 16mm). The editing can be a tad harsh at times, and the overall look of the film is "utilitarian nostalgia." Yet it works. Especially as the film progresses and opens up.
The original Criterion release of Metropolitan featured fully remastered presentation approved by the filmmakers. This new Blu-ray version only bests that first release by virtue of being in high-definition. The 1080p transfer offers only a slight improvement, mainly by enhancing the film's grain. The picture is still generally soft with plenty of warm tones, which makes the film feel older than it is (that's a good thing). While it doesn't appear that much has been done to the visuals, the movie looks as good as it probably ever will. What's unfortunate is that the audio track wasn't remixed beyond its original mono track. For such a dialogue-heavy movie, it's not that big of a deal, but it still would have benefited from some better use of at least stereo if not surround channels.
The Blu-ray release features all of the supplements found in the original Criterion version. There's a thorough and enjoyable commentary track featuring Whit Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen, Christopher Eigeman and Taylor Nichols along with outtakes and alternate casting featurettes.
Metropolitan is a uniquely hilarious film that is neither too pretentious nor too dry -- although in lesser hands it easily could have been. Instead, we get a heartfelt ode to tradition and nostalgia as well-drawn characters wrestle with the reality that life moves on. To paraphrase Buckley, Stillman's U.H.B. members are standing athwart history yelling "Stop!" to no avail.
This Blu-ray re-issue is identical to the standard def release from Criterion, so previous owners may not be interested. If you've yet to see this, however, there's no time like the present.
Review content copyright © 2012 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Alternate Casting