Damsels in Distress | Film review
Metropolitan director Whit Stillman returns with a new species of loquacious blowhards.
The damsels of Damsels in Distress, Whit Stillman’s first feature in 13 years, speak with such stilted, exaggerated formality they often sound as if they’ve leapt from the pages of a Victorian romance. They haven’t, of course: The setting is East Coast academia, and these proper ladies—initially a trio led by Greta Gerwig’s alpha do-gooder—are contemporary coeds on a self-righteous mission to “save” their lowly university classmates. (The list of charity cases includes suicidal undergrads, brain-dead “doofi” and a new damsel-in-training played by Crazy, Stupid, Love’s Analeigh Tipton.) Stillman is no stranger to stylishly anachronistic dialogue. His great debut, Metropolitan (1990), made explicit the parallels between its bored Manhattan socialites and the Jane Austen aristocrats they read about. Here, though, the discrepancy between diction and environment is so vast that those previous portraits of yuppie recreation look like neorealism by comparison.
Broader than anything Stillman has directed, Damsels often resembles a sketch comedy in which half the sketches fall flat. (A badly staged musical number is the nadir.) But when a joke does hit, it kills: There’s a frat boy so moronic he never learned his colors and a biting British snob whose use of the put-down “operator type” to describe a pickup artist becomes one of the film’s most sublime running gags. Gerwig is MVP—the screwball comic heroine of Stillman’s wildest dreams. She spouts his absurdly proper nonsense-speak as though it were her native tongue. Should Whit make another movie in the next 13 years, here’s hoping she’s involved.