Ryan Phillippe, the baby-faced star of 54, has a sculpted hairless chest, a beautiful pout, and a crop of bronze curls that make him resemble a Roman boy toy at a Fellini orgy. He looks marvelous, all right, but as an actor, he’s all cover and no book. Phillippe plays Shane, a working-class kid from New Jersey who longs to taste the forbidden high life at Studio 54, the hedonistic palace of New York disco dreams. It’s 1979, and as he looks across the river, speaking to us in voice-over, we’re meant to be lured by his Manhattan reverie. All we see, though, is a slack bridge-and-tunnel naïf who sounds like he’s been to one too many showings of Saturday Night Fever.
At Studio 54, foxy Shane gets whisked past the doorman and, before long, lands a job as one of the bare-chested bartenders, an elite crew of studly pinup conquerors who mix the drinks, serve the cocaine, flirt with the patrons, and, on the side, revel in all the free sex and substance abuse they can handle. They’re gigolo manservants elevated to godlike status by the Studio hierarchy, which celebrates beauty and pleasure as the only true values. The truest value there, of course, is money, but it’s the one that remains invisible, kept (barely) under the table by the club’s co-owner, mascot, and reigning velvet-rope fascist, Steve Rubell (Mike Myers), a pudgy, ratlike Brooklyn vulgarian who has created the club as a shrine to everything that he believes, deep down, he lacks.
As the movie keeps telling us, Studio 54 was more than a disco. It was a world of fantasy and freedom, where everyone joined in the pulsating ritual of music, dance, ecstasy. But in 54, we don’t get to see much ecstasy. For all the fascination of its subject, the movie is flat, logy, and amateurish–a Scotch-tape-and-balsa-wood job that takes us into the fabled nightclub and then strands us, through sheer ineptitude, on the sidelines. Mark Christopher, who wrote and directed the film (his first feature), re-creates the club’s playfully subversive physical details: the glitter confetti and giant silver man-in-the-moon cokehead mobile, the VIP room hidden in the dank basement. What he fails to capture is the mood of swirling Dionysian excess — the eroticized excitement of rhythm feeding off glamour, escalated by desire. His Studio 54 could, at times, be any metropolitan disco, and though it features plenty of gaudily costumed extras and the occasional staged celebrity cameo (look, it’s Truman Capote! Is that Halston in the white scarf?), no one in the club ever becomes a character. The music isn’t even a character–amazingly, I got more of a boogie-down rush from Whit Stillman’s elegant talk-fest The Last Days of Disco.
Shane becomes friendly with two coworkers: Greg (Breckin Meyer), a busboy who moonlights as a drug dealer, and Greg’s wife, Anita (Salma Hayek), a sleekly beautiful coat-check attendant who dreams of becoming the next Donna Summer. The drama that develops among these three is, to put it mildly, undernourished. The film uses them to demonstrate that in a world where everyone sleeps with everyone else, it’s hard to be a success without selling yourself. But since none of the three actually does anything very whorish, all remain honorable–and dull. Then Shane meets Julie (Neve Campbell), a Jersey girl who has become a soap opera star. Will she sleep with a producer to get a big role? You start to hope that she will, just so something will happen.