Writer/director Whit Stillman’s debut film received massive critical accolades following its 1990 theatrical release, including a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination. Over two decades later, it’s back in a pristine new Criterion Blu-ray edition, but it’s just as bewildering as ever for viewers like me who fall outside the extremely narrow demographic of stuffy upper-crust New York debutantes.
Here’s a film where college-age guys walk the streets of modern Manhattan in top hat and tails without any irony, ceaselessly discussing philosophy, literature, and other egg-headed items while waiting for their next social gathering with like-minded snobs. There’s no real narrative arc to speak of, just a glimpse of a few days in the lives of privileged preppies. I appreciate exploring different cultures and classes in film, but when the subjects are droll one-percenters with seemingly no redeeming values there’s very little left to do but despise them.
As the film opens, an insular group of Ivy League kids gets an infusion of fresh snobbery from a fellow student from the wrong side of the tracks. Well, not exactly the wrong side, more like the slightly less well off side. They’re initially hesitant to let the redhead join in their reindeer games, but most of them grow to enjoy his fresh perspectives in their never-ending discussions.
Oh yes, these kids love to talk, but not about sports or movies or even future hopes and dreams. Instead, they’re primarily focused on discussing the minutiae of their ongoing debutante season, a time which basically consists of them getting together every single night to bask in their perceived intelligence and esteemed self-worth. Picture an old gentleman’s club, but instead of crusty rich geezers smoking cigars in leather armchairs, their grandkids are hanging out all night at each other’s extravagant homes having the same kind of conversations, and that’s about the extent of the film’s plot.
Sure, we can somewhat identify with the new kid desperately trying to maintain his place in his newfound social strata, but when even that kid is so full of himself that he can’t recognize an unrequited love interest in the room with him every night it dooms the film to end up a real head-scratcher. Is Whitman having a laugh about these stuck-up kids, or was he one himself and he just wrote what he knew? By the close, I no longer cared.
The film’s low-budget independent origins negate any reason to view on Blu-ray. Criterion has restored the film with this new digital transfer and Whitman has approved it, but it has such unspectacular cinematography, shot in such a static, flat manner that there’s seemingly no reason for a hi-def upgrade when DVD will suffice. No, this is a film that exists solely for the dialogue, so it could have just as easily been staged as a play than put up on the big screen or your widescreen. For what it’s worth, the Blu-ray contains an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, providing maximum fidelity for Whitman’s literate, highbrow dialogue.
The disc is amazingly bereft of bonus features, but one of them is an amazing find: screen test footage reveals that Lloyd Kaufman, better known as the schlockmeister general of Troma Entertainment, was originally cast in a small role. It’s hilarious watching him play against the uptight college kids, which is probably why he didn’t make the final cut.