The early 1990s marked the emergence of two independent filmmakers who were seen as possible heirs to Woody Allen’s cinematic legacy: Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming) and Whit Stillman. The latter filmmaker, in particular, has often been cited in the same breath as Allen’s films. They both mine the same social strata — affluent, Upper East Side New Yorkers — for comedy. Stillman’s debut, Metropolitan (1990), is his most Allen-esque, right down to the simple opening credits sequence (using a font similar to the one Allen does in his films) accompanied by jazz music. Stillman’s characters, like Allen’s, also speak witty dialogue loaded with literary references. However, this is where the similarities begin and end. In Allen’s films, he presents upper class characters that are narcissistic and self-absorbed while Stillman tends to gently parody these qualities.
Completely by random, Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), whose name sounds like something right out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, shares a cab with Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) and his friends coming out of a debutante party. Tom is inadvertently invited to a gathering at Sally Fowler’s (Dylan Hundley) where he becomes a part of her Rat Pack, a group of affluent twentysomethings. Tom catches the eye of Audrey (Carolyn Farina) and they eventually bond over a discussion about Jane Austen. Audrey is a sweet, virtuous girl, just like the heroine she admires in Austen’s book, Mansfield Park. Audrey loves Austen’s prose while Tom prefers good, literary criticism because, as he puts it, “that way you can get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it ever really happened. It was all just made up by the author.” The first party sequence does an excellent job of establishing this world and the characters that inhabit it.
Even though their group is known as the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, Nick is their unofficial leader, dominating many of the conversations with his caustic wit. Tom is seen as something of an intriguing outsider (at one point, Nick notices that he lives on the Upper West Side). He’s not as rich as the others but is able to hold his own intellectually. Charlie (Taylor Nichols) doesn’t like Tom because he has a thing for Audrey and knows that she fancies this social interloper. Throughout it all, Nick is Tom’s way into the group and lays out the social rules for him (he shows him the proper etiquette and gives him fashion tips). Tom is obviously the audience surrogate and along with him, we are immersed in this rarefied social milieu.
Metropolitan takes place during the Christmas holidays and depicts the inevitable decline of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, much as Charlie theorizes early on in the film, confirming his fears of the decline of their generation. He even attempts to define it and frets that they are doomed to decline financially, lamenting the inevitable demise of the Preppie class. He also comes up with the term “Urban Haute Bourgeoisie” or UHB (pronounced “UB”) to describe his class but, in reality, it is just another word for Preppie. Initially, the characters in the film may seem pretentious but I believe that Stillman wants us to see past this facade to the anxiety-ridden personas that lie beneath as typified by Charlie.
Sally’s initial party is chock full of amusing statements, such as how Jane (Allison Rutledge-Parisi) mentions to Tom that a classmate of hers was influenced by his theories on agrarian socialism and that “since then she’s joined the Red Underground Army. If she blows herself up, it’ll be your fault.” Tom admits that he’s a committed socialist who believes in the writings of 19th-century French social critic Charles Fourier. It also is during this sequence that Chris Eigeman gets some of the film’s best lines, such as when his character, Charlie and Tom talk about the effect that divorced parents and broken homes have on their group. Nick mentions that Jane’s father died suddenly the year before. Tom laments that it must’ve been awful for her to which Nick deadpans, “Yes. It was tough on him too.” Eigeman is the master of sarcasm as his character offers caustic observations and quips about those he doesn’t like, chief among them Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), an arrogant aristocrat. Eigeman was born to spout Stillman’s dialogue as is evident in the way Nick offers a hilarious argument as to why Tom should continue to attend deb parties. Stillman obviously thought so too and has cast the actor in every one of his films.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1973, Whit Stillman went into book and magazine publishing. In the early 1980s, he moved into film, representing Spanish films for foreign sales. During this time, he began writing the screenplay for what would become Metropolitan in 1984. At first, all he had was a setting and an image of young people in black and white evening clothes “set against the cream and gilt of New York interiors.” Stillman drew on his memories from his days at Harvard where he read the works of 19th-century reformer Charles Fourier. He ended up writing the monologue about the upper classes being doomed to failure at a restaurant during the 1985 Cannes Film Festival while promoting Spanish films. At the time, he was feeling marginalized and channeled it into this speech. In 1988, Stillman snuck into a debutante party just to make sure they hadn’t changed much and so they’d be accurately depicted in his film.
Like Tom, Stillman felt like an outsider amid the Park Avenue debutant set and he also lived with his mother after his parents divorced. Initially, Tom was the focus of the script but then Stillman got sick of him as “the typical male ingénue,” and audience surrogate. He put the script away for awhile and decided to shift the focus to Audrey and this balanced the story, opening it up so that Charlie and Nick’s roles grew.
Stillman deliberately set his film during an ambiguous time period. He said, “I wanted it to be somewhat in the past, but also timeless so it would not be pegged to one year.” He decided to shoot it in New York City because he could “have an expensive-looking film without actually paying any money for it.” Having very few film contacts, he approached his friends to help finance the film. Stillman used his uptown connections during filming, which began in December 1988 with a cast that had no prior film experience. For example, scenes set in a posh living room were shot inside the Lehrman Institute. Metropolitan was made for less than $100,000 and finished for an additional $300,000.
Metropolitan received fairly positive reviews when it was first released. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars out of four and said of Stillman, “He has made a film Scott Fitzgerald might have been comfortable with, a film about people covering their own insecurities with a facade of social ease. And he has written wonderful dialogue, words in which the characters discuss ideas and feelings instead of simply marching through plot points as most Hollywood characters do.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Particularly funny are Mr. Nichols, as the pessimistic Charlie, who talks of doom and downward mobility, and Mr. Eigeman's Nick, who has a snap judgment for every occasion.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “Whit Stillman, who wrote and directed this anthropological comedy of manners, approaches his material with both an insider's affection and contempt for his own kind.” The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum found that the film “has its awkward moments, but the charm of the actors and the wit and freshness of the dialogue (which touches on such subjects as Jane Austen, romance, and class consciousness) keep one interested.” Finally, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Instead of a full-bodied comic portrait of the coming-out-party set, Metropolitan offers a thin, cartoon version. Then it uses that cartoonishness to make everyone on-screen seem irresistibly cute.”
There is a certain timeless quality to the film with no real indication of the time period it is set in and this makes Metropolitan the most enduring of Stillman’s three films, which include Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) — forming a loose-knit trilogy of doomed Preppies in love. With Metropolitan, Stillman has created an esoteric film that isn’t afraid to name drop Fourier, discuss the advantages of detachable collars and lament the decline of the Preppie class due to downward social mobility. Twenty years since its debut, Stillman has created a fully realized world with well-written characters that he has real affection for and this is something that doesn’t always come through in a lot Woody Allen’s work (at least not recently).
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