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Damsels in Distress
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Stillman Is Back And Gerwig's Got Him!"
5 stars

Back in 1990, just as the American independent film movement was beginning to gain traction in the wake of the surprising success of Steven Soderbergh's groundbreaking 1989 debut "sex, lies and videotape," another young man named Whit Stillman appeared from out of nowhere with a film called "Metropolitan," a hilarious comedy about a group of rich and privileged young people--the kind who considered the term "yuppie" to be a compliment (though they preferred the descriptive "urban haute bourgeoisie")--and a young man of slightly lesser means eager to join their ranks. The film became a hit on the art-house circuit and won Stillman both an Oscar nomination for his screenplay and an instant following of admirers eager to see what he would come up with next. "Next" turned out to be 1994's "Barcelona" and 1998's "The Last Days of Disco"--a pair of comedies that found him continuing to deploy his unique blend of social satire and observational humor (in one classic bit in "Disco," a character earnestly explains how the environmental movement was the direct result of a long-ago reissue of "Bambi") while expanding his cinematic horizons. Once again, his fans were eager to see what was next but in this case, "next" turned out to be. . .nothing. In one of the odder vanishing acts of modern cinema, Stillman has not released a single film since May of 1998. Just to put that in perspective, consider that during that same time frame, the notoriously reclusive Terrence Malick released no less than three feature films and don't get me started on Soderbergh's comparable output. Hell, even Stanley Kubrick managed to unleash one film during that time and he was dead for virtually that entire period.

Now, at long last and after countless false starts, rumors and dashed expectations, Whit Stillman has finally returned with a new movie--an event that will be met with joy by auteurists of a certain age and general confusion by those who believe that indie cinema--hell, cinema period--simply didn't exist in the days befor Quentin Tarantino. Of course, after such a long absence, any initial returning effort has to face the burden of not only working on its own terms but of somehow living up to all of the inflated expectations of a fan base that has been waiting for so long and who will expect nothing less than absolute perfection as the end result of that long wait. Perhaps as a way of subverting those expectations, Stillman has given us "Damsels in Distress," a film so odd and off-kilter that even his most ardent fans may find themselves scratching their heads over the bewilderments it has to offer. This is not meant as a criticism, mind you--I think I laughed harder during it than any movie that I have seen so far this year to date. That said, there is an excellent chance that this may indeed be the oddest and most peculiar film opening in theaters this weekend and bear in mind, "The Three Stooges," "Lockout" and "The Cabin in the Woods" are also hitting the multiplexes as well.

The film is set at the fictional Seven Oaks college, a place of higher education that could give Greendale Community a run for its money in terms of sheer strangeness. The faculty are largely non-existent, many of the guys have only a tenuous relationship to notions of personal grooming at best and we actually meet at least one student who, for reasons that turn out to be perfectly understandable, has somehow made it into the arms of higher education without even knowing what the different colors are. ("You think knowing the colors is a big deal?") This is a college in need of a savior and lo and behold, it has a self-appointed one in Violet (Greta Gerwig), a brutally efficient and borderline insane blonde who marches through the campus determined to help everyone that she can, albeit in the most skewed ways imaginable. She recommends that girls should date boys who are their social, emotional and intellectual inferiors because doing so will make them feel better about themselves. (Luckily, this is a campus where such people are at a premium.) She runs the suicide prevention center and is always there with a kind word and a donut for anyone who comes in a sad story (though woe unto anyone that takes a donut without having any thoughts about self-extermination). She fervently believes in the therapeutic powers of dancing and her greatest dream in life, in fact, is develop a dance called the Sambola and transform it into an international sensation.

As the film opens, Violet and her ever-present posse, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), stride into freshman orientation in the hopes of finding the perfect person to take under their collective wing, whether they like it or not. They quickly come across Lily (Analeigh Tipton, best remembered as the babysitter everyone was crushing on in "Crazy Stupid Love") and before she knows what hits her, she now has an ever-present trio of friends who are always at her side and wiling to advise her on every possible situation, whether she wants it or not. Things start to go bad when Violet rescues the genuinely depressed Priss (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and she responds to the suggestion to date someone dumber and less attractive by taking up with Violet's own doltish sort-of boyfriend. This leads to an anxious night or two of the soul for Violet--well, a trip to a seedy diner far outside of town--and when she returns, she winds up making a play for Charlie (Adam Brody), who has been sort-of wooing Lily himself and who knows a thing or two about Violet as well. It all sounds as though it is fraught with portent but it all comes together in the end in what I suppose is the only possible way that it can end--the debut of the Sambola and some of the funniest end credits to come along since the heyday of the Zucker Brothers.

Sometimes when a filmmaker takes such a long break between projects, their talents can get a little rusty and the end results can sometimes suffer as a result. I the case of Stillman, although this endeavor happens to be a little more overtly wacky than his previous efforts, the end result is so witty and charming that it hardly feels as if any time has passed at all in regards to his skills. I admit that on the surface, "Damsels in Distress" may not sound "funny" as much as it does "strange" and "inexplicable" but I promise you that it truly is hilarious and the only problem is that it is the kind of humor that works best when it is experienced head on and which loses something in the translation. (For example, have you ever noticed how Monty Python routines never seem quite as funny when you are recounting them to someone else who has never seen them before?) Without ever pushing too hard for broad laughs, Stillman offers up a delightful array of non-sequiturs, diversions and the occasional sight gag (including such bits as a toga-clad campus brawl and one of the funnier on-screen suicide attempts of recent memory) that nearly all hit their marks. At times, it may seem like a jumble of outright weirdness and that may put off some viewers, even those who have sparked to Stillman in the past, but those willing to embrace its droll deliriums are likely to absolutely fall in love with its quirky charms. Personally, I don't think a day has gone by since I have seen it when I haven't thought of some aspect and found myself grinning helplessly as a result.

Besides Stillman's touch in the writing and directing departments, a good amount of the ultimate success of "Damsels in Distress" comes from the pitch-perfect performance by Greta Gerwig as Violet. For regular readers, this admission may come as a bit of a surprise because in the past, I have made no secret of my mild distaste for her by referring to her as a monster on par with Satan or the creator of those Dr. Pepper 10 ads, by suggesting that the only reason that she was the one actress to date to break out of those awful mumblecore films to the greener pastures of "Greenberg" and the "Arthur" remake was because she was blonde and willing to doff her top and by claiming that the best scene she ever appeared in was the one in "House of the Devil" where she was shot in the head. This is nothing personal against her, mind you, but there has always been something about her that has always rubbed me the wrong way. And yet, since her character in this film is meant to be deliberately off-putting and borderline nuts, that blandly obnoxious persona that she has developed has finally found a vehicle that it was perfectly suited to inhabit. Simply put, she is really funny here and hell, maybe even a little sympathetic as well to boot. Look, I am not saying that this is going to change my opinion of her in general and I will no doubt continue to flinch whenever I see her name appear in the opening credits for years to come. However, I am still big enough to admit when someone I dislike as done good and this time around, Ms. Gerwig has done good.

In the end, "Damsels in Distress" is a real charmer but while it is great to have Whit Stillman back as a working filmmaker, my guess is that it probably won't expand his audience in any significant way. Those who have loved his previous films are likely to adore this one as well. Those who have so far remained resistant to his peculiar charms are highly unlikely to have their viewpoints altered this time around. Those who have never actually seen one of his films will most likely wind up skipping over this one instead without realizing exactly what it is they are missing. And yet, the film is so good--I find myself liking it more and more every time I think about it--that I almost want to implore you to go see it if it happens to be playing anywhere within your vicinity. After all, it isn't as though there have been a bonanza of great films these days and the ones that are worth seeing, like "The Cabin in the Woods" and "The Hunger Games," will keep for another week or so. If you do go, be sure to wash up thoroughly beforehand and utilize your favorite scented soap in the process. Trust me--Violet would approve.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22910&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/12/12 17:51:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/17/13 Annie G Off-beat awesome film - you gotta see this one! 5 stars
5/11/12 Sean C. Stillman fan. Loved it, but you either get him or you don't. No in-between. 4 stars
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  06-Apr-2012 (PG-13)
  DVD: 25-Sep-2012


  DVD: 25-Sep-2012

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