Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco is about the demise of the nightlife scene the way his 1994 film, Barcelona, is about that stylish Spanish city. Which is to say, on the surface, this discursive drama concerns a certain genteel population of New York City in the early ’80s — well-bred, college-educated young women who work as low-paid corporate drones by day (subsidized by parents, marking time until society-approved marriage), and who, with their preppy beaux, transform themselves into high-rolling club kids by night. And it re-creates with tender rue the so-so old days of loud music, loose drugs, doormen standing sentinel behind velvet ropes, as well as the thrill of being a part of the trendy scene, however vacant and soul-deadening revisionist cultural history (and upcoming films like Velvet Goldmine and 54) reminds us the scene turned out to be.
But as with the politically ambitious Barcelona and his sharp first comedy of manners, 1992’s Metropolitan, Stillman employs his story in the service of something deeper and much less trendy: a thoughtful study of decency and sin, loyalty and sex, friendship and socioeconomics, as manifested by articulate, attractive WASPs much like himself. But it’s no tedious sermon, not with Kate Beckinsale (of Much Ado About Nothing, doing a spotless American accent) and Chloe Sevigny (Kids) as Charlotte and Alice, a couple of publishing-house underlings who share a shabby post-graduate Manhattan apartment and a circle of disco-loving friends. Charlotte is an unhappy, competitive confidence wrecker, disguised as an ”honest” friend; Alice is more innocent and direct, unformed but more attracted to a young man of style (Robert Sean Leonard) than to one of substance (MacKenzie Astin).
The fetching cast (including Jennifer Beals as a histrionic girlfriend), while a long way from Gwyneth and Matt stature, nevertheless reflects Stillman’s enhanced status as an established indie talent. But Stillmanites are likely to be even more pleased by the reappearance of some of his regulars, including Christopher Eigeman, who link this tender morality play to the filmmaker’s previous works (and, who, for good measure, make references to Barcelona). Stillman’s gang may be maturing precariously close to middle age, but it’s lovely to know the important pleasures of conversation and intellectual discussion endure. The bonding patterns of these specimen boomers only appear ordinary. In fact, they’re as entrancing as anything on the disco dance floor. A-