Combustible Celluloid
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With: Chloe Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Christopher Eigeman, MacKenzie Astin, Matthew Keeslar, Robert Sean Leonard, Tara Subkoff, David Thornton, Jennifer Beals
Written by: Whit Stillman
Directed by: Whit Stillman
MPAA Rating: R for some elements involving sexuality and drugs
Running Time: 113
Date: 29/05/1998

The Last Days of Disco (1998)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Funky Music

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's interesting that Whit Stillman, the writer-director-producer of Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994) would make a movie that features disco dancing. His films are not about the body, nor about the soul or the heart, but about the mind.

The Last Days of Disco takes place in "the very early eighties" in Manhattan, where one particular disco club is all the rage. Des (Chris Eigeman) works there, and often tries to get his friend Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), who works in advertising, into the club. (Des' boss doesn't like advertisers.) Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), who work as publishing assistants with "Departmental Dan" (Matthew Ross), slowly become involved with this group. There isn't exactly anything you could call a plot, but events happen, and characters talk about them. One theme of the movie is the conflict between group social events and "ferocious pairing off." Charlotte tries to give Alice dating advice, such as saying the word "sexy" a lot while speaking to men. When the group dissipates and people pair off, Alice shares an awkward late-night pre-seduction moment with Tom Platt (Robert Sean Leonard). He shows her his "Scrooge McDuck" collection, and she responds with "Scrooge McDuck is sexy." The scene is okay by itself, but later we're subjected to a discussion and analysis of this same date by the same characters. Obviously these characters are insecure, but they bury their insecurities and try to justify them intellectually. No one ever breaks down and bears their soul.

The single finest moment in The Last Days of Disco comes at the end, during the credits. Sevigny and a date are on a subway, and everyone gets up and begins to dance to "Love Train" by the O'Jays. Sevigny slowly lets a joyous and infectious smile slip out. Cut to the platform. The people there are dancing, too. It's as if Stillman decided to kill his final roll of film on the spur of the moment. The scene is alive and exciting, and I wish there were more of that in the movie. So many times there are scenes in which characters say things that feel rehearsed, lines that they've cooked up and saved for the group, like in one diatribe about Disney's Lady and the Tramp. There is something to say for smart and funny, of course, but dazzlingly brilliant conversation isn't enough if we don't love the people whose mouths are chattering.

Woody Allen's films are talky, but we love the silly self-deprecating guy who's at the center. He's a character. We fall in love with movies because we connect emotionally to them, whether with people or events. We can't do that if the film only thinks, and doesn't dance.

Note: Looking at the film again, 14 years later, on Criterion's new Blu-ray, I feel I was a bit harsh back in 1998. I'm still not sure it comes together in a way that's smoothly intellectual and sensual, but it's more sheerly enjoyable than I gave it credit for. Criterion's release -- following up their 2009 DVD -- is gorgeous, especially in the way Stillman's camera admires its beautiful women. Extras include a high-definition digital transfer, supervised by director Stillman, and an audio commentary by Stillman and actors Chris Eigeman and Chlo� Sevigny. We also get four deleted scenes, with optional commentary, an audio recording of Stillman reading a chapter from his book based on the movie, a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette, a stills gallery with captions by Stillman, and a trailer. The liner notes booklet features an essay by novelist David Schickler.

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