Tuesday, May 30, 2006

METROPOLITAN – John Hughes on the Upper East Side

METROPOLITAN is a cult movie originally released in 1990 and currently on limited re-release in the UK. It is a beautifully observed piece written and directed by Whit Stillman – a man who was nominated for an Oscar for this screenplay and then was barely heard of again. Similarly, the movie stars a bunch of unknown young actors who have largely disappeared from public view. This only adds to the mystique surrounding the film. It’s as though we had a glimpse of a usually hidden, and perhaps vanishing, world for a brief moment, and then it was gone. For the movie focuses on a group of young adults called the Sally Fowler Rat Pack. They are a bunch of “Upper Haute Bourgeoisie” (i.e. preppie) kids who attend a series of debutante balls and after-parties in New York over Christmas vacation. What is amazing about the film is that, because it focuses on a very specific social milieu, it can look at all the same concerns that we find in any John Hughes movie, but adds an another layer of dramatic intrigue.

As with John Hughes, the main concerns are unrequited crushes, how different social groups interact and the desperate need to succeed socially. Indeed, we get all the Hughes stock characters. Audrey Rouget is the classic sweet, innocent, confused heroine. She even has that Molly Ringwald short bob haircut, albeit atop couture ballgowns and strings of pearls. She spends her time reading Jane Austen novels and sympathises with the principled heroine of Mansfield Park, Fanny Price. She has a crush on Tom Townsend, the geeky hero of the piece. He is our “everyman” entrée to this society – the outsider who is adopted by the wealthier group of friends and who has to rescue our heroine from the evil clutches of Rick von Slonecker – the classic John Hughes Jock/villain nemesis of the piece – albeit in black tie. Of the other members of the group, the most notable is the cynical anti-hero Nick Smith – a viciously self-aware social climber who hides a heart of gold underneath his wry exterior.

The glory of this movie is the pithy dialogue and most of the memorable lines are delivered by Nick. Indeed, this must be one of the most quotable movies of all time – up there with WITHNAIL AND I, SWINGERS and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. A classic Nick-ism is: ‘Playing strip poker with an exhibitionist somehow takes the challenge out of it.’ However, the most ironic lines usually come from the less self-aware members of the UHP – such as when Sally Fowler sits in her gorgeous Upper East Side apartment in a ball gown, having drinks after a debutante party, and earnestly decrees that she is “not a snob, and I abhor all forms of snobbism.’ Or when our hero, Tom Townsend, intones that he does not ‘read novels. I prefer good literary criticism.’ This intellectual snobbery could have been lifted straight out of
THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, a WOODY ALLEN movie, or perhaps a Noel Coward play.

The key question is, I guess, why should you set such a movie in this specific social set? My response would be that the most biting humour, and the underlay of tragedy that gives the movie its depth, derives from its setting. For while the preoccupations of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack are mainly about how to get a boyfriend/girlfriend, occasionally they stray into the more serious. Nick and Charlie Black are painfully aware that the type of society they inhabit is on the wane, and that their type is doomed to failure. Society has evolved around them and they are dinosaurs. (Although it is interesting to note that sixteen years later, black and white tie functions are alive and well.) In fact, it is worse. A random ‘UHP’ they meet in a bar tells them that it’s not as easy as all that. They are not doomed to failure, but are active agents in their own failure. The early years of promise are replaced by a middle-age of mediocrity made all the more painful by the fact that one or two peers will succeed, throwing your own failure into relief. This seems to me to be tragically true. Most of us will under-perform our life goals, but the gap between intention and reality is all the greater for those who are told time and again in their youth that they have the world at their feet: that they are the Best and Brightest. I also found the depiction of the painful relationship that Tom has with his social standing to be incredibly true to life. Tom is part of the social set, albeit at the lowest echelon, but reacts against its superficiality. However, it is blackly ironic that he expresses this discontent by pretentiously declaring himself to be the disciple of an obscure French socialist.

Having said all this, the movie is not without its flaws. Thanks to the cast of inexperienced unknowns, most of the performances are unbelievably wooden, and it is testament to the quality of the script that the movies survives and is funny anyhow. Nonetheless, given its combination of straightforward teen-angst comedy and the more piquant observations about the future of the social set, METROPOLITAN deserves its place as a cult movie.

METROPOLITAN was originally released in 1990 but is on re-release in the UK right now.

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