This Distracted Globe random header image

Metropolitan (1990)

November 10th, 2007 · 3 Comments

Metropolitan 1990 poster.jpg   Metropolitan 1990 Criterion DVD cover.jpg

Under the setting “Manhattan, Christmas Vacation, not so long ago,” red haired college student Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) exits a debutante ball. The smug Nick (Chris Eigeman) insists that Tom share a cab with him to an after party. Adjourning to a Park Avenue apartment, Tom is introduced to Nick’s social clique. Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina) is bright but socially awkward. Charlie (Taylor Nichols) is a faux intellectual who believes their class is doomed to failure. Charlie also has a crush on Audrey.

Audrey is more interested in Tom Townsend, who announces that he never takes cabs (Nick accuses him of being “a public transportation snob),” is a committed socialist (“I favor the socialist model developed by the 19th century social critic Fourre”) and criticizes Audrey’s favorite author – Jane Austen – as being “ridiculous from today’s perspective,”while admitting that he doesn’t read fiction. Not surprisingly, she becomes attracted to him.

The girls arrange from Tom Townsend to escort Audrey to the endless cycle of deb parties being held over the holiday season, but Tom is too smitten with his ex-girlfriend to consider Audrey more than a casual acquaintance. He leaves her at a ball to walk his ex home, drawing a social condemnation from Charlie. When Tom and Charlie suspect Audrey has fallen prey to the charms of the sleazy Rick Von Sloneker, they travel to the Hamptons to rescue her.

Metropolitan 1990 Whit Stillman Edward Clements Carolyn Farina Taylor Nichols pic 1.jpg

Production history 
Whit Stillman was 31 and working as an agent for cartoonists. To break into film, he began representing Spanish filmmakers, finding buyers for their movies. A five-man film crew came to New York in the summer of 1983 to shoot a movie, casting Stillman as a “dumb American.” Titled Skyline, it got a distribution deal and became a hit in Spain. Stillman was impressed that you could write about your life and without much money, make a successful film.

Stillman was also inspired by film critic Vincent Canby, who in an article on a Fred Astaire retrospective, wrote that the world of those old musicals – people in evening wear – no longer existed. Stillman disagreed with that, and began thinking about a Fred Astaire movie through the prism of American independent film. He wondered what an Astaire picture directed by John Sayles or Jim Jarmusch might look like.

In 1984, Stillman began writing what would become his second film – Barcelona – but it proved too ambitious for him to shoot. On nights and weekends, he worked on a script for his Astaire movie, Metropolitan instead. By August 1988, Stillman finally had a screenplay – improperly formatted – finished. Unable to find a producer, he met a cinematographer named John Thomas from an ad in the back of an independent film magazine.

Metropolitan 1990 Whit Stillman Allison Parisi Chris Eigeman Dylan Hundley pic 2.jpg

Thomas liked Stillman’s script. Borrowing from friends and relatives, they raised $97,000 to make the movie. Stillman didn’t have enough money to get his film out of the lab, but was able to sell it to American Playhouse. Metropolitan got attention at the Sundance Film Festival and New Line ultimately agreed to distribute the picture. Released August 1990, it was enthusiastically greeted by critics, who compared Stillman to Eric Rohmer or Preston Sturges.

Metropolitan and Stillman’s other films – Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco – are comedies of manner, transplanting the world of a Jane Austen novel into New York of the recent past. Nothing much occurs in the way of drama or a plot, but that’s part of Stillman’s charm. Seeing this film again – exhibited beautifully by the Criterion Collection on DVD – I came away wanting to like it much more than I was able to.

For his directorial debut, Stillman draws excellent performances from a cast that had never acted in a movie before, the smarmy Chris Eigeman in particular. Stillman’s characters remain too aloof to ever really identify with, while the cycle of ball-after party-sidewalk gets monotonous without a narrative. The only substance to be found in Metropolitan is its style, but its crisp, buttoned down tone, as well as the jazz score by Tom Judson and Mark Suozzo, grew on me.

Metropolitan 1990 Whit Stillman Edward Clements Carolyn Farina Taylor Nichols pic 3.jpg

Neil Young at Neil Young’s Film Lounge writes, “For one thing, the film is consistently funny: Stillman is essentially a comic writer, and there’s dry humour in even the most emotionally bruising of encounters. His verbose characters trade aphorisms that would amuse both Wilde and Woody, though we soon realise that the people who say the most are the ones with the least to say.”

“If F. Scott Fitzgerald was an independent film director, his first film would probably have been fairly similar to Metropolitan, the debut of writer/director Whit Stillman,” writes Jen Johans at Film Intuition.

Christopher Long at DVD Town writes, “Metropolitan is a proudly literary film. The characters not only talk about books incessantly but they speak like characters from a book as well. Their speech patterns are formal, deliberate, and long-winded. It all takes a lot of getting used to, but once you fall into the rhythm, it’s like listening to music.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Coming of age · Cult favorite · Drunk scene · Road trip

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Marilyn // Nov 14, 2007 at 10:02 am

    Metropolitan is one of my very favorite films. It’s interesting that I just saw Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Norman Mailer’s only feature film, and find the literary pleasures of Metropolitan so much more appealing. The dialog reverberates well in the ear, and the romantic exploits of our privileged cast of characters are so charmingly real. I never thought of it as a Fred Astaire movie–perhaps because of the young ages of these characters–but I definitely think it has that subgenre’s charm down. I could watch it over and over–and I have.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Nov 14, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    Marilyn: I think Stillman had a strange ability to make movies with charm that did not in any way give the audience what they wanted. It’s a stretch for me to label this a “romance”, but I agree with you, there’s a certain rhythm and poetry to the movie in its music and dialogue that kinda makes me grin.

  • 3 gloraine // Jun 18, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    does anyone know the song playing in Rick Von Sloneker’s bedroom on Chap 24 ?

Leave a Comment