April 6, 2012

Winner: Damsels in Distress

It’s been fourteen long years since Whit Stillman’s previous film, The Last Days of Disco, which focused on Manhattan nightlife in the ’80s, and helped launch the careers of Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale. But fans of the writer-director’s sparkling dialogue and sharp wit can rejoice in his return to form today with Damsels in Distress. Stillman, whose previous cult classics Metropolitan and Barcelona also focused on the lives of the young and the privileged, now turns his eye on a group of students at an elite and historic college, headed by a Bullett favorite, Greta Gerwig. The New York Times pointed out the “delightful felicity” of the film’s writing, and said the movie overall was “remarkable for feeling both exquisitely observant and completely untethered to any recognizable social reality.”  Time wrote that Stillman seemed to have plucked the “loquacious, nutty” central female characters “from Jane Austen and rolled in equal parts P.G. Wodehouse and J.D. Salinger before dowsing them with the scent of his uniquely American-preppy sensibility.”

The Guardian called Damsels “an unabashed joy, a weightless soap bubbled in the guise of a campus comedy,” while singling out the strain of cuteness that diminished its power in the eyes of some other critics. The New York Daily News, after calling the film “just as precise and self-consciously precious as predicted,” still noted its “moments of charming wit buried under all its archness.”  But in the end, more were won over by a movie Rolling Stone called “an exhilarating gift of a comedy” and a “retro bubble of sparkling wit.”  And Salon, while wondering about the reasons for Stillman’s long hiatus (“not enough money and too much stupidity” seems to be the smart answer), succinctly summed up, “Stillman is sometimes simply too damn smart for his own good.” 

Loser: American Reunion

It’s been nine long years since American Wedding was released in 2003, and in that time, the sort of raunchy, man-child humor that American Pie helped put on the map has become nearly ubiquitous. The latest installment of the series, which struggles to recreate the freshness of the original, falls sadly short. The Washington Post called it “an aggressively crass—and not especially funny—trip down memory lane, an attempt to recapture the sweetly ribald magic of the earlier film.”  The Miami Herald wrote that “the movie never overcomes the feeling that it is—above all else—an attempt to wring a few more dollars out from a once-profitable franchise.”

A number of reviewers noted that the pervasive blend of sex and sentimentality remains as charming as ever, like Movieline‘s Stephanie Zacharek, who wrote that American Reunion is “laced with just the sort of dumb raunchy jokes you hate yourself for laughing at,” but also “preserves, to a degree, the elemental sweetness that made the original so distinctive.”  But in the end, as even the Austin Chronicle noted in an otherwise extremely enthusiastic review, “if you loathed the first film, this one probably won’t do much to change your mind.” And as A.O. Scott put it in the New York Times, “Remember American Pie? If you do, this movie is redundant and sad. If you don’t, it’s irrelevant.”

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