Judge Gordon Sullivan hasn't yet gotten over the last days of polka.
History is made at night.
Sometimes it's fun to speculate about movies that might have been. Winona Ryder was initially cast in the Chloe Sevigny role in The Last Days of Disco. It's fun to imagine both The Last Days of Disco as a Ryder vehicle, but also as any one of the number of films she made before going on semi-hiatus at the turn of the century. In contrast, Ben Affleck apparently campaigned hard for a prominent role, and The Last Days of Disco would have come out just as his star was ascending, the same year as Good Will Hunting and Chasing Amy. Either change in casting might have moved Whit Stillman's third feature from the realm of well-loved indie cult drama into the mainstream of filmmaking. That's not necessarily a good thing, though, as Criterion's The Last Days of Disco (Blu-ray) makes it clear that The Last Days of Disco creates its own world and doesn't need to rely on big names to sell its brand of observational dramedy.
Facts of the Case
Alice (Chloe Sevigny, The Brown Bunny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale, Underworld) are low-level editorial assistants in New York in the early '80s. They spend their days doing grunt work at the office, but only come alive when they go out to the Club to dance and meet a cast of other upper-crust twenty-somethings living life in The Last Days of Disco.
Pretty much all human beings can be interesting. Under the watchful eye of a talented creator, even the life's of the most apparently boring people can become utterly tragic, highly comic, or both. Whether it's Douglas Sirk tackling the life of a '50s housewife or Woody Allen covering neurotic Jewish writers, the right writer/director can make pretty much anyone interesting. Whit Stillman fits handily into this category. On the surface, there's nothing particularly appealing about a film that follows a pair of rich, post-college women as they experience existential ennui in the disco clubs of New York. Especially when there's not much of a plot to hang these characters on, no major crises or huge reversals of fortune. And yet, under Whit Stillman's direction they become interesting, well-rounded characters who live life, and that's enough.
Like other notable directors who cut their teeth in the '90s—think Kevin Smith, who transformed a couple of convenience store clerks into beloved characters—Whit Stillman stands on the strength of his dialogue. Much like Smith, Stillman stylizes his characters' speech, giving them impossibly witty retorts for every situation. They muse and question and wound each other with the kind of words we all might wish we could muster at a moment's notice.
Dialogue, however, is little without a solid cast to speak it. Here, Stillman lucks out. I've never been a partisan either for or against Kate Beckinsale, but her performance here causes me to lean rather heavily into the "pro" category. She plays an empty airhead, someone you might admire from afar without wanting to be friends with. She says her lines perfectly in character, like she speaks without even thinking about what she's saying. Her opposite, Chloe Sevigny, is almost all internal in her performance. She's shy and vulnerable and believably as a woman who hasn't grown into herself yet. Though the male characters get less attention from Stillman, dependable actors like Robert Sean Leonard and Chris Eigman as the possible paramours of Alice and Charlotte. Even smaller roles are filled capably by the likes of Jennifer Beals.
Criterion is updating their 2009 DVD release onto hi-def, and the results are strong. The 1.78:1 AVC-encoded transfer is good without being quite great. Colors are spot-on, with good contrast and grain throughout. Detail, however, can vary, and that means grain sometimes looks wrong. It's a very watchable transfer, though, and I suspect many of its problems are related to the lower-budget look of the film. The DTS-HD 5.1 surround track keeps Stillman's dialogue front and center, with impressive clarity and definition. The disco tunes that pump throughout the club scenes show excellent dynamic range, and offer a surprisingly rich soundstage for what is fundamentally a dialogue-driven drama.
The disc's main extra is an audio commentary featuring Stillman, Sevigny, and Eigeman. It's Stillman's track overall as he relates production anecdotes and talks about writing and working with studio pressure. Sevigny and Eigeman chime in occasionally, but mostly about their particular moments in the film. There are also four deleted scenes with optional commentary by the trio, and additional information about the narrative comes out in a featurette where Stillman reads the epilogue from his novelization of the film. Running about 18 minutes, we learn a little about the fates of the characters after the events in the film. There is also a short promotional featurette, a stills gallery, and the film's trailer included on the disc. Criterion's usual booklet features a short essay by critic David Schickler.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Last Days of Disco feels very much of the 1990s. It's an artifact of a weird time in American moviemaking when a new renaissance of writer/directors were making their mark in independent and semi-independent features. For some this is a high point in recent American cinema, but some can see its writer/directors as self-indulgent. This is especially true of Whit Stillman, who could be accused of mining his friends and life experiences for overly written sketches of those with problems that most people would beg to have instead of their own. It's not a view I share, but those who don't fall for Stillman's dialogue and the performance of his stars will find The Last Days of Disco a bit of a slog.
The Last Days of Disco is a wonderful example of a writer/director coming into his own. Stillman orchestrates his dialogue and directs his actors to create a two-hour slice-of-life in a surprisingly under-documented part of history (the disastrous 54 notwithstanding). Those with the previous DVD might not find the audiovisual upgrade sufficient to double-dip, but for those who held off on that release, this Blu-ray is a great way to own the film. It's worth a rental to those with an interest in dialogue-driven dramedies and great acting.
The Last Days of Disco can keep on dancin'—not guilty.
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