Remember when Tom Wolfe, the great novelist and New Journalist, decided at the age of 70 to write a novel about the modern American college experience? The result, 2004’s “I am Charlotte Simmons,” was a famous embarrassment.
Now, another artist who’s probably too old to make a work about college has done it anyway. Director Whit Stillman, who is 60, returns from a 15-year layoff to direct “Damsels in Distress,” a satirical look at college today. It has its moments, and isn’t nearly as disastrously out of touch as Wolfe’s book, but it’s easily the weakest of Stillman’s four films.
Stillman’s three films in the ’90s- “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “Last Days of Disco”- all looked at groups of moneyed twenty-somethings, and Stillman was clearly drawing from a world he clearly knows. The best of the bunch, 1994’s “Barcelona,” concerned a group of American expats in the titular city and mines all sorts of humor from both ugly Americans and the sort of people who called them ugly Americans.
The director has never been afraid to make his own protagonists look like solipsistic cretins, but “Damsels in Distress” takes them to a new low altogether. These are awful, insufferable people, and the movie isn’t able to make them insufferable in an interesting or compelling way.
“Damsels in Distress,” like ‘Charlotte Simmons,’ is set on a present-day East Coast college campus. It concerns the mean-girl trio of Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) who, from their perch in charge of the campus suicide hotline, sit in nonstop judgment of the rest of their campus, most of whom they consider uncouth and foul-smelling.
And in “Mean Girls” fashion, they take young transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) under their wing. (Yes, the characters are all named after flowers, an idea which Stillman stole either from Vincent Gallo or from whoever Gallo stole it from.)
Tipton doubles as the only person in the movie who’s for one second passable as a college student. Several of the cast members- including Gerwig and Brody- are obviously in their late 20s or even older (Brody is 32.)
There are a couple of very good small performances, including a dynamite cameo from Aubrey Plaza, and in a small part the movie makes much better use of Zach Woods’ smugness than The Office ever could. And the whole thing ends with an out-of-nowhere musical number, which worked much better when Stillman tried the same trick in “Last Days of Disco.”
But ultimately the humor and the storytelling aren’t enough to make truly awful characters interesting.