Title: Damsels in Distress
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for CompuServe by Harvey Karten
Director: Whit Stillman
Screenwriter: Whit Stillman
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 3/27/12
Opens: April 6, 2012
Some colleges are known for their sports teams, others for their academic departments. Still others are noted for religious impact while some are not only secular but progressive. Regardless, there will be always be a clique that’s somewhat like the quartet that leads the action in Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress,” a comedy the likes of which you might find on HBO but rarely if ever on the regular channels. You already knew that, though, having a background in the two best known movies of Stillman—who wrote the clever dialogue as well as directing the tale. Stillman’s “Barcelona” was a comedy of manners about an uptight guy working in the Barcelona office of a U.S. corporation whose life changes when his less stuffy cousin visits. His “The Last Days of Disco” found two women, book editors, who find love when patronizing a disco. This is the stuff of a writer-director who graduated from Harvard and whose métier would be dissenting the lives of people either in college or are recent grads.
While the direction of “Damsels” is fine, nothing exceptional, the writing is what makes this movie a quirky hit, targeted probably to a hipster audience in college or even more likely toward recent grads of elite, out-of-town schools. Its principal character, Violet (Greta Gerwig), is the titular leader of a group of four young women with distinct temperaments, though she, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Lily (Analeigh Tipton) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) preside over the suicide prevention center at Seven Oaks University (actually filmed by Doug Emmett at Staten Island’s Snug Harbor). Their aim is to help people through their depression whether they need help or not. The women have come to the right place in a way since the men of the school, particularly those who belong to a Roman letter fraternity (yes, that’s one of the oddities of the picture: Roman not Greek) are Neanderthal and smell bad. The gals consider them morons though Violet, who has the lion’s share of whimsical comments, has no problem since she does not approve of dating people who are cool but rather those who are inferior to her. Among Violet’s projects is the addition of a new dance craze—the results of which form the impressively comical end-credits, though Greta Gerwig would hardly serve as an apt partner for Fred Astaire.
Though Stillman’s emphasis is on the fair sex, he does develop some of the men. One of the “morons,” Frank (Ryan Metcalf), is so stupid he does not know the color of his own eyes. Thor (Bily Magnussen) has Joe College looks and at one point is thought to be heading to the second story of a college building to try suicide. Best of all Charlie aka Fred (Adam Brody) wears a jacket and tie, making up a tale that he is not a student at the college but works for a research corporation. This Walter Mitty becomes Lily’s favorite b.f.
“Damsels in Distress” has no interest in the kind of riotious comedy that evokes gales of laughter from the soundtracks of TV sitcoms. Its humor is deadpan, its look is screwball. While the repetitiveness of the dry whimsy causes the second half to falter, the picture is worth a shot if you’re up to that sort of thing, the movie buoyed by the end credits that recall the 1937 movie “Damsels in Distress” which starred Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine.
Rated PG-13. 99 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B