There’s not a hint of irony in Whit Stillman’s 1998 film The Last Days of Disco despite there being plenty of opportunity for it. In Stillman’s cinematic world of the very early ’80s, a band of young, educated Manhattanites are still caught up in disco’s sway, unaware of its imminent expiration, but that isn’t treated as a retrospective character flaw or an opportunity for knowing period-piece mocking of any sort. The characters here are drawn with absolute sincerity, and though Stillman’s trademark mannered dialogue is anything but naturalistic, the film’s refusal to caricature makes it feel immediate and true. Disco’s demise lends thematic weight, but its perceptive and hilarious screenplay makes it timeless.
Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale star as Alice and Charlotte, recent Hampshire College grads working a low-level publishing job in New York. While their days are filled with skimming manuscripts, hoping to pluck out a bestseller and ride it to an assistant editor position, their nights are occupied with the social scene at a popular and packed nightclub.
The ensemble piece also features Chris Eigeman as club manager Des, Mackenzie Astin as Jimmy, an ad man whose presence isn’t welcome at the club, and Matt Keeslar as district attorney Josh, who senses an opportunity to uncover a major drug scheme at the club. Robert Sean Leonard stars as an older man who catches Alice’s attention and Jennifer Beals makes a cameo as one of Des’s girlfriends he breaks it off with by coming to the sudden realization he’s gay.
Stillman’s script finds a number of permutations, romantic and otherwise, to shuffle the characters around in, but he never loses sight of a character’s true self. Sevigny’s reserved but ambitious Alice and Beckinsale’s canny but conniving Charlotte make for a fascinating friendship, almost defined as much by the implicit conflict as the explicit camaraderie. Eigeman’s acerbic, neurotic performance is well-worn territory for him, but no less entertaining in its familiarity.
While plot threads involving roommate troubles, job failures and the criminal underpinnings of the club swirl in the background, Stillman makes conversation his primary concern. Like David Mamet or Hal Hartley, Stillman’s authorial voice is utterly distinct and potentially off-putting at the same time, but if you’re on his aesthetic wavelength, The Last Days of Disco is an incredibly funny film. That goes for extended conversations about the gender politics of Lady and the Tramp or the existence of yuppies and one-liners like “A lot of people like to say they won't take no for an answer. I just wanted you to know that I'm not one of them.”
The Blu-ray Disc
Criterion presents The Last Days of Disco in a 1080p high definition, 1.78:1 transfer. This release marks the first time Criterion has revisited what was initially a DVD-only title released after they had begun offering Blu-ray, and it’s a decent candidate for the upgrade. Colors are fairly vibrant and mostly stable and image sharpness and clarity is certainly improved over the DVD. On the whole, the image can look a little flat and not as crisp as one might expect from a recent film shot in an optimally lit setting, but it’s a decent transfer that serves the film well enough.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent. Dialogue is crisp and clear through the front channel, while the extensive selection of disco hits fills out the surrounds dynamically.
We get a port of everything from the DVD here, including a commentary track featuring Stillman, Sevigny and Eigeman, four low-quality deleted scenes with optional commentary from all three, an audio piece featuring Stillman reading the epilogue from his novelization of the film, an insubstantial EPK piece from the studio and a gallery of production stills with extensive captions by Stillman. The disc also includes the theatrical trailer, and the package includes an insert with a brief essay by novelist David Schickler.
The Bottom Line
While it’s not a major upgrade over Criterion’s 2009 DVD of the film, this release is an excellent opportunity to get better acquainted with the literate humor of Whit Stillman.