Set in Manhattan in 1990, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan is a wonderful artifact from the fin de siècle of the Reagan-Bush era. Tom (Edward Clements) is a ‘west-sider’ who happens to hail a cab at the same time as Sally Fowler’s ‘rat pack’ of debutantes. Since the pack is short one male escort, they invite Tom into their world of deb parties, soirees, and post-party skull sessions.
Nick (Chris Eigeman) is the actual leader of the pack, a young man with an opinion on everything. Nick’s cynicism and deadpan humor vies against Tom’s bright idealism. Tom is a self-described “Fourier socialist”, so the pack adopts him as if he were an exotic pet.
Despite the fact that Metropolitan features a cast of unknowns (who have remained unknown), I cannot think of a more likable young cast in any film. Fifteen minutes into Metropolitan, you’re irresistibly drawn into a tight circle of friends: along with Tom and Nick is the sweet and earnest Audrey, who loves Jane Austen. The sharp-tongued Jane has the mature insight to curb Nick and protect Audrey. Charlie is a country club Republican, while Sally and Cynthia are fun loving party girls.
These characters engage in cutting debates on social norms and class identity. Here’s Tom and Nick sparring on the merits of the Christmas Ball:
Nick: So you’re not going to the Christmas Ball…oh I know—you’re opposed to these parties on principle.
Tom: Yes, that’s right.
Nick: One shouldn’t be out eating hors d’oeuvres… you’d rather sit at home and think about the less fortunate.
Tom: What’s wrong with that?
Nick: Did it ever occur to you that you are the less fortunate?
As if channeling Oscar Wilde, Nick keeps the bons mots coming, like when he tries to goad everyone into dancing the Cha-Cha.
Cynthia: The Cha-Cha is ridiculous.
Nick: The Cha-Cha is no more ridiculous than life itself.
Stillman provides an inexhaustible supply of sharp repartee. Tom, always the good sport, sometimes turns the tables on the pack:
Jane: I went to school at Hampshire.
Tom: Did you know Serena Slocum?
Jane: The inevitable question—all the guys ask that. Serena has at least twenty boyfriends, all at different schools. How do you know Serena?
Tom: I’m one of her boyfriends.
Despite the constant verbal sparring, there’s a basic humanity at the core of this film—these young people care deeply for each other and try to protect one another. As Christmas approaches, Tom and Nick walk by the apartment building where Tom’s father lives with his second wife. Nick stops in front of a box of toys left on the sidewalk for the garbage truck.
“Look at this,” Nick exclaims, “an Aurora model kit, a derringer set, stuffed animals—these are the toys of our generation”. Tom blanches and says nothing, and we realize that this box of toys once belonged to him. In the next scene, Tom reveals that his father has left Manhattan and moved to New Mexico.
Tom: I don’t understand why my father didn’t say goodbye.
Nick: You don’t? One word…‘stepmother’.
Stillman is masterful at revealing how important these friendships are. They’re the only buffer to the shocks of entering the adult world, as families disintegrate and childhood is left behind.
Near the end of the film, Tom and Charlie encounter a 30-something yuppie at a bar. Charlie offers his pet theory on the ‘doomed urban haute bourgeoisie’. The yuppie turns into an oracle, revealing to Charlie and Tom a glimpse of their future:
“Doomed would be far easier. I have a good job, it pays well and I’m not destitute. But it’s all so… mediocre. The acid test is: do you take any pleasure in answering the question “What do you do?” I can’t bear it. You expect much better and some of your peers achieve it—you read about them in newspapers and see them on TV. I avoid them whenever I can.“
When the duo drops in on Sally, she’s on her way out, and her date is a man twice her age.
Sally: We can’t keep getting together—it’s not normal.
Tom: I wish someone had told me that before now.
In Vanity Fair, James Walcott writes: “Fewer movies better evoke the vague melancholy of being home between semesters, suspended between graduation and grownup-hood. A cloud of reminiscence hangs over the characters as they’re starting to miss something that hasn’t gone yet. They’re already nostalgic for something that they haven’t quite left behind.”
The Blu-ray version of Metropolitan is an acceptable video transfer—most scenes are sharp and clean, but there’s evident grain near the end of the film. The audio offers a mono soundtrack, but it’s bright and airy. Extras include the director’s commentary and additional scenes with alternate casting.
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