The Last Days of Disco writer-director-etc. Whit Stillman solidified the pattern that had begun with his 1994 sophomore effort Barcelona of taking four years off in between his breezy, talky comedies: four years that were very well spent, though I do not know and to be honest do not care if the time was spent coming up with an idea, fussing over the script (it seems rather unlikely that Stillman can crank his scripts out all that quickly), or securing financing. Whatever; it isn't important. The point is, at the end of that four years, 1998 saw the release of Stillman's third film, the first of two movies that year about the legendary discotheque Studio 54 (or its fictional analogue, here), beating 54 to theaters by three months; I imagine that both in '98 and today, you can find someone claiming that 54 is the smarter work, but I can hardly imagine what the inside of such a person's mind must look like. Anyway, the pertinent facts are that some extra money was pitched Stilman's way to make certain that his film hit theaters first, and that left Last Days of Disco with a bit of an inflated budget, which it spectacularly failed to earn back - calling it a "bomb" is inapt only because that suggests considerably higher figures than indie cinema tends to work with. Thus, by the nightmare logic of the American film business, the movie that should have seen Stillman locked in as one of the great indie filmmakers of that era instead left his career on ice for so long that it appeared, to all intents, to be over.
Timing undoubtedly had something to do with it: a seismic shift had occurred in the American independent landscape between 1994 and 1998, brought on by the titanic stomping of Quentin Tarantino and Harvey Weinstein, and the arch, formalised writing and pointedly under-stylised visuals that Stillman was so good at were simply not at all to the tastes of a niche audience having a passionate love affair with post-modernism and pop culture riffing; it's difficult to think of a less post-modern filmmaker of the 1990s than Whit Stillman. But such is the cruelty of arbitrary fate.
The good news is that none of this gets in the way of loving The Last Days of Disco now, and love is, I think, an appropriate reaction to the movie. It is less fresh and insightful than Stillman's first and still best movie, Metropolitan, but it makes up for it by being more complex, mature, and at times poignant like nothing he'd done yet. Like his previous work, the film is about a heavily self-contained community responding to the impact of the world outside, but in this case, for the first time, Stillman's interests seem to be deeper than simply cataloging the foibles of an in-group to which he once belonged; here, he manages to position that in-group within the context of a grander human history, succeeding for the first time in telling a story that genuinely seems to have something important to say about life as it is lived outside of what we might call the Whit Stillman Bubble. Though needless to say, the Bubble is still there, and peering inside of it is still absolutely fantastic and fascinating; but there's a depth to the characters that outpaces even Metropolitan, a film that I still love and, honestly, prefer.
The film announces itself with a gag that perhaps stands as the single best predictor of whether you are or are not on Stillman's wavelength of comedy: it takes place, according to the pair of opening title cards, in-
"The very early 1980s"
-which is both astringently wry humor, and a fairly smart encapsulation of the film's overall emotional mood. September, the month that comes before autumn really sets in, is more important than whether it was particularly 1981 or 1982 - and, too, sometimes a memory is more precisely about a time of year than the year itself, and this is above all things a memory piece, where a general sense of a moment in history trumps the exact retelling of what happened when (in fact, the one definite historical event that might serve to anchor the narrative, the Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park in Chicago, happened in July, 1979).
The Last Days of Disco follows a somewhat rag-tag group of people all involved in the culture surrounding an unnamed club (an amalgam of the places Stillman frequented in his disco days, including Studio 54): the most important of these people to the film's overall shape is Alice Kinnon (Chloë Sevigny), a functionary at a small publishing house, though selecting a protagonist is basically impossible. The rest of the group includes Alice's co-worker and roommate and in a vague and uncomfortable way friend, Charlotte Pingress (Kate Beckinsale); Des McGrath (Chris Eigeman), one of the club managers); Jimmy Steinway (Mackenzie Astin), a friend of Des's who "works in advertising" and as such is persona non grata at the club, though his job security rests on getting people into it; Holly (Tara Subkoff), a meek girl who is roped into being Alice and Charlotte's third roommate; Dan (Matt Ross), the token liberal in an apolitical crowd, who works at the same publishing company and starts dating Holly; Tom Platt (Robert Sean Leonard), a passing acquaintance of Alice who is modestly attracted to her; and Josh Neff (Matt Keeslar), who was in college with Des, and immediately starts pursuing Alice when they meet by chance at the club.
It would be too exhausting to say what, exactly, happens to all of these people along the course of the film; The Last Days of Disco has a somewhat loose, hazy narrative style in which events tend to happen between scenes rather than during them, and all we get to see are the aftermaths, or occasionally, the wind-up. What it all adds up to is a sharp examination of what it's like to live in a major city in your early 20s, and how difficult it is to make a personality for yourself in the face of too much stimulation. Which is almost exactly the same thing that Metropolitan adds up to, except that the later film is a bit more brittle and considerably more nostaligic: if the dominant feeling of Metropolitan is precision, the dominant feeling of The Last Days of Disco is more general and sweeping, lighting upon character types and eras in history rather than specific characters and moments.
The era is stated right in the title, of course, and that unsurprisingly leads to a film all about things ending and being lost; it is considerably more melancholy than either of Stillman's preceding movies, and undeniably less funny, though it still has its share of nifty lines. A late monologue that's more defiant than triumphant, and a dreamy final dance scene on a subway train are just about the only things that keep the film from tipping into real sorrow; that, and the overwhelming love Stillman plainly has for his disco days. I will confess: there's probably not a single genre of music for which I have less use than disco, and not having lived through the period I can't have feelings about it one way or the other. But even granting that, The Last Days of Disco is less of a paean to disco per se than a tribute to people who know that their way of life is ending but still maintain it as best they can, hopeless dreamers and idealists being true to what they know. And this is also basically the same as Metropolitan.
So how the hell is it a different movie than Metropolitan? And here we get to the characters, who though they are types, are impressively well-observed and real - Stillman's endlessly artificial dialogue and even the stately contrivance of his plots sometimes distort the fact that he is ultimately concerned with genuine feeling, and I do not know if there are two more genuine characters in any of his films than Alice and Charlotte, whose relationship is one of the most interesting damn things of any American movie in the latter half of the 1990s. Sevigny is a hit-or-miss actress for me; calling Beckinsale "hit-or-miss" would be doing her a real kindness. But they both click into their parts here, individually and as a pair, with Beckinsale absolutely devastating the film and everything else with her portrayal of a really terrible human being who delights in cloaking her meanness in unconvincing, back-handed compliments and insulting concern; Sevigny responds to this - until the end, Alice is the ultimate reactive character - with a perfect mix of fear and hatred on the one hand, and a yearning to copy that behavior and make it her own on the other. It's as excellent a depiction of a toxic friendship as I know, even granting that "friendship" generally and "female friendship" specifically, is a subject that movies don't really know what to do with.
This dynamic is not the sole reason that Last Days of Disco is worth watching; they're not even the only two good performances. But it is this relationship, to me, that gives the film its unique value and makes it such an essential work: it turns a film about Young Adulthood as a concept and grounds it in a very particular and distinctly common situation, and it is from this nexus of incredibly rich human detail that the rest of the film grows. Like Metropolitan, the results are perhaps only a minor masterpiece, but that still means it's a masterpiece of a kind, and if it had been Stillman's swan song, a director could hardly hope to be prouder of such a strong exit.