You’re a part of it all, the whole Manhattan thing.
Although he’s best known today for directing the indie hit The Last Days of Disco writer/director Whit Stillman’s first film Metropolitan made a similar smash in 1990, receiving praise at film festivals and an Oscar nomination for its brainy, literate screenplay. In the years that passed, though, the film fell into obscurity, forgotten by many. Only everyone’s favorite film snobs at the Criterion Collection didn’t forget it—they’ve released it with a painstakingly restored picture and a look behind the scenes.
As Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) leaves an upper class debutante ball in Manhattan one December night, a cab pulls up for him. Tom insists that he prefers to walk home, and offers the ride to five other young people just leaving the party. To make up for this little misunderstanding, they invite Tom to join them at their “after-party.” Back in a posh, high-rise apartment, everyone spends the evening sipping wine, smoking cigarettes, and debating topics such as Marxism, Jane Austen, and old favorites such as whether or not God really exists. Tom hits it off with this crowd, and these get-togethers become a regular event.
It doesn’t take long before Tom’s big secret is revealed. He is not, in fact, a member of New York’s wealthy elite. He shares a small, dingy apartment with his divorced mother far away from the stately apartments of his new friends. Fortunately, they accept him despite his background. There’s Nick (Christopher Eigeman), who is sarcastic and in love with his own sense of irony; Charlie (Taylor Nichols), who has an opinion on everything and an argument ready for any subject; and Fred; who spends most of the time intoxicated and unconscious. As for the ladies, Jane (Allison Rutledge-Parisi), Cynthia (Isabel Gillies), and Sally (Dylan Hundley) are every bit as icy and opportunistic as they are intellectual.
Rounding out the group is Audrey (Carolyn Farina), the object of Tom’s affections. But an old flame from Tom’s past and a rowdy newcomer with a beach house threaten to break the young couple up before the romance even starts.
Metropolitan is a real “thinking person’s” movie. The characters spend most of the film sitting and talking, all while wearing their tuxedos and evening gowns. Discussions range all over the place, from literature, to travel, to sociology, to politics, and everywhere in between. In the essay that accompanies this disc, author Luc Sante refers to one character as a “walking op-ed column.” I’d argue that this description fits all the characters. For a good portion of the runtime, the plot takes a backseat to the characters discussing seemingly important topics. Fortunately, the highbrow chatting never fully upstages the romance plot between Tom and Audrey, or the other plotlines running through the script.
Not only is the movie driven by dialogue, but this dialogue is precise and formal on an almost absurdist level. Watching Metropolitan, it hit me that although we often read words such as “therefore,” “nevertheless,” or “whereby,” we rarely hear them spoken. And yet, that’s how these characters talk. Even when they’re at their most informal, the actors all still deliver their lines in a proper and stately way.
There is a contrast, though, to these characters’ speech patterns. During the few times we see Tom at home with his mother, Tom acts “normal” and he and his mom snap at each other like a typical parent and kid. It’s a complete turnaround from the well-articulated philosophizing world of the after-parties. Going back to the film’s opening scene, it too reveals one of the characters outside of the debutante world. In this scene, Audrey runs to her room in tears after her little brother makes a joke about the size of her butt. Audrey’s mom consoles her, and promises to work on Audrey’s dress so it’s not “so full.” We never see Audrey in an emotional state like this again, but this one quick moment reveals just how sensitive and vulnerable she is. Thanks to this scene, we can understand how hurt she might be when Tom is seen talking to his flirtatious ex-girlfriend, even though everyone acts all formal and intellectual as this happens.
Another plot running through the movie is Nick’s various misadventures. When he learns Tom is not as well-to-do as the rest of the group, Nick doesn’t look down at Tom, but instead welcomes him as one of the group, and offers some tips on how Tom can stop renting and scrape up enough cash to buy a tux of his own. Nick is outraged when a rival, Rick (Will Kempe), treats women shamelessly. But, other scenes reveal that Nick himself has enjoyed the occasional forbidden fruit. When the two characters finally confront, Nick outsmarts Rick, but ends up losing the argument anyway. It’s an interesting take on an “all talk no action” character, so that by the time Nick exits the story, we aren’t sure whether he’s joking when he says his family might try to murder him.
Nick’s departure from the film is part of another important theme in Metropolitan: the changing of the times. After the debutante season ends at Christmas, the characters spend the week between that holiday and New Year’s in what they sarcastically call “orgy week.” Here, the tuxedos are ditched in favor of business casual, and the lengthy debates turn to more base subjects, including sex. No one’s seen hopping in bed with each other, but it’s certainly hinted at. What “orgy week” really provides is a feeling of change. On the DVD’s commentary, Stillman claims “orgy week” is symbolic of the changing attitudes among New York’s youth from the late ’60s into the early ’70s. The formal debutante atmosphere slowly fades into the distance, and that causes the characters to drift apart. One of the girls starts dating someone new, another pursues a singing career, Nick hops on his train, and Fred wanders off when the alcohol runs out.
During the final third of the movie, then, we’re left with the naïve Tom and the over-analyzing Charlie as they try to find some way out of the city to “rescue” Audrey from Rick’s sleazy beach house. For all their high-minded ideals, the two guys can’t figure out how to rent a car. The sudden jolt of broad comedy into the film’s conclusion is welcome, but it also illustrates the way many friendships change over time. There’s no big fight or scandal that breaks up these friends. Everybody just changes, leaving Tom and Charlie with nowhere to go and nothing to do, except for a last-minute attempt to reunite with Audrey. This sweeping wave of change is seen elsewhere during the final act, reflecting the end of the importance of debutante balls, and a societal shift with the rich leaving the city and finding new roots in places like the Hamptons. When all’s said and done, Tom, Audrey, and Charlie don’t know what lies ahead, but at least they’re still on the road.
Metropolitan gets the usual treatment we’ve come to expect from Criterion. The digital transfer was supervised by Stillman himself, who meticulously oversaw removing grain and scratches from every shot. As a result, this DVD is probably the best Metropolitan has ever looked. The mono soundtrack is not show-offy, but it does what is has to, and is fine for an almost all-dialogue film.
The highlight of the extras is the commentary track, with Stillman, Eigeman, Nichols, and editor Christopher Tellefsen. It covers a lot of ground, including how Whitman first thought up the idea, the guerilla-style no-permits production, and the finished movie’s journey through the strange world of film festivals. The outtakes are better described as raw footage from the set, and the alternate casting extra gives a hint as to what the film might have been like with actors’ roles switches around. A fullscreen theatrical trailer is also included, as well as the above-mentioned Sante essay.
Yes, there’s a lot of talking in this one, and a lot of it is on some heavy topics. The characters throw around a lot of high-minded terms like “urban haute bourgeoisie.” At times, it starts to feel like information overload, and some viewers will grow impatient waiting for more Tom/Audrey romantic tension to start up again.
All right, I’ve said a lot about this movie, but all you really want to know is whether I think you should spend money on it. If you enjoy films that are dialogue- and character-driven, chances are you’ll get a kick out of this one. If you prefer intricate plots, intense drama, or heartfelt romance, you’re better off with a rental. If you refuse to watch a movie unless it has at least one scene in which the hero jumps a motorcycle through the air as something explodes behind him, then you might want to pass.