The manner in which American comedy has changed since the release of Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco in 1998 is precisely illustrated by the difference between that film’s theatrical poster, ported over to Image Entertainment’s now-discontinued home-video release but not to Criterion’s later DVD and Blu-ray iterations, and the one adorning the cover of his latest film, Damsels in Distress. The The Last Days of Disco affiche is quintessential ‘90s ad chic: Emphasizing (one might even say misrepresenting) the hypersexual glamour of the film’s nightlife milieu, the image has a vaguely lurid quality intended to swindle those most easily titillated out of the price of admission. Nineteen ninety-eight, you’ll recall, was a banner year for raunchy sex comedies aimed squarely at recently pubescent teens and their college-bound elders, and everything from the much-mocked Jennifer Love Hewitt vehicle Can’t Hardly Wait to the other disco-era nightclub flick, 54, were advertised in a nearly identical manner: an elegant typeface, an “adult” appearance, and the implicit promise of young people fucking were the promotional tools of the day. Compare this design sensibility with the reigning order in 2012, of which Damsels in Distress is a prime example: Gone are the sleek intimations of imminent copulation, supplanted by a Crayola color scheme, toddler-block lettering, and, most importantly, the disconcerting infantilization of every major woman in the film.
Of course, Damsels in Distress is no closer in style or sensibility to the twee Juno than The Last Days of Disco ever was to its graphic design contemporaries, but it’s important to be aware of some of the recent seismic shifts in our perception of American comedy and its place in the cultural landscape. This is slightly reductive, but two of the most significant subgenres to emerge from within the comedy scene over the last 14 years—the freeform pseudo-improv comedies popularized by Judd Apatow and the sub-indie, micro-budget comic dramas associated with mumblecore—have both had an indelible influence on Stillman’s very particular but nevertheless evolved craft, even while his films share the quality of being conspicuously “old-fashioned.” The connection is made most obvious by the inclusion in the cast (in no less than a starring role) of mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig and, in a smaller role, Funny People‘s Aubrey Plaza. Gerwig and Plaza, along with late-period Office regular Zach Woods, are in many ways the faces of contemporary American comedy, and their inclusion in the cast of an ostensibly archaic comic fantasy is one of the ways Stillman has managed to update or refresh his mannerisms without compromising its shopworn integrity. What’s most interesting about having such identifiably modern comedians line-read characteristic Stillman dialogue is how unmistakably it’s brought into the present. Rather than sidestep or conveniently ignore the change that’s come about in comedy since the release of his last film, Stillman’s implicitly acknowledging that his style has been left behind. Putting Gerwig front and center is like an admission that he wants to catch up.
And he catches up admirably. Rather than recede, 14 years later, into some more deeply obscure passages of Hollywood history, Stillman chooses here to sashay gallantly ahead, gravitating to the wide-eyed warmth and vitality of the Golden Age. If there remains in his humor an affinity for screwball wit and esprit, it’s drifted away from the cynicism of His Girl Friday (which Barcelona resembled most of all) and instead toward the dreamy, high-spirited fervor of Preston Sturges (particularly The Palm Beach Story) and, unsurprisingly, Frank Capra, whose A Damsel in Distress lends this film both its title and principal musical number. Stillman’s style has always been rooted in nostalgia and classicalism (it’s apparent in his penchant for refinement, unnatural loquacity, and an essentially romantic view of the middle and upper classes), but Damsels in Distress is the first of his films to embrace the overtly fantastic elements common to Golden Age comedies and musicals. The results require some unexpected reorientation. Early passages of dialogue, especially an argument regarding the correct pronunciation of the name “Xavier,” have the tendency to stretch the limits of real-world credibility. Until one properly settles into the film’s fantasy rhythm, bits like this may feel more like unintended gaffes than conscious forays into broad humor.
But once the film begins to exaggerate its cartoonish qualities more openly, Stillman’s motivations become clear, and from this point forward it’s easy to love the film on its own terms. The dead giveaway, and one of the strongest scenes in the film, comes when a sensitive but dim-witted jock named Frank reveals that he doesn’t know the color of his own eyes, while his fraternity brother Thor doesn’t even know the colors of the rainbow. What begins as ludicrous and farcical (“I don’t go around checking what color my eyes are,” Frank says indignantly to a girl shocked by his stupidity) mutates, incredibly, into something far more endearing and sweet (“I don’t know about you,” says Thor, “but I don’t think people should have to feel bad about stuff they don’t know”). That Stillman can guide us gracefully from a broad joke to something totally earnest and true is one of his great gifts as a comic filmmaker, and it’s the fantasy element of Damsels in Distress that most closely resembles the classics to which it pays homage. It also suggests that for all his efforts to contemporize his comedy, and for the vast gulf that separates comedy in 1998 from comedy in 2012, Stillman will remain not only quaintly old-fashioned, but uniquely timeless.
Sony's sparkling 1080p HD transfer is a modest but essentially flawless coup, looking as sharp and crisp as you'd expect a contemporary Hollywood picture shot on a high-end digital camera to look when presented with care. Colors are bright and saturated, detail is exceedingly high, and the image in general has an almost unnatural (but great-looking) shine and shimmer that befits its classical studio-fantasy sensibility. The transfer's DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is clear and robust, keeping Whit Stillman's trademark rapid-fire dialogue perfectly balanced and audible in the front channel while the film's breezy, Brill Building-style score fills out the back end with the utmost clarity.
What a bounty. First, the amusing and illuminating feature-length commentary track by Stillman and his troupe of young actors is further testament to his (and their) boundless loquacity, though, as in the film, one may miss the presence of UHB alumnus Chris Eigeman, always a commentary favorite. Rounding things out: "An Evening With Damsels in Distress," a fairly routine but still appreciated post-screening roundtable with the usual suspects; an expected behind-the-scenes featurette that provides useful contextual information; and a slew of deleted scenes that prove just as funny as anything retained in the film, particularly a monologue about childhood love by Adam Brody, which ought to have made the final cut. Nothing here is a revelation, but the volume of material definitely goes above and beyond what you might expect Sony to bother with, so our hats go off to them.
A warm, genuinely enchanting comedy in the spirit of Hollywood's Golden Age, Damsels in Distress is another classic in the making from one of America's greatest comic filmmakers.