March 7, 2006
The early ‘90s marked the emergence of two independent filmmakers who were seen as possible heirs to Woody Allen’s cinematic legacy: Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming) and Whit Stillman. Stillman, in particular, has often been cited in the same breath as Allen’s films. They both mine the same social strata – affluent, Upper East Side New Yorkers – for comedy. Stillman’s debut, Metropolitan (1990), is his most Allen-esque, right down to the simple opening credits sequence accompanied by jazz music. Stillman’s characters, like Allen’s, also speak witty dialogue loaded with literary references. However, this is where the similarities begin and end. In Allen’s films, he presents upper class characters that are narcissistic and self-absorbed while Stillman tends to gently parody these qualities.
Completely by random, Tom Townsend (Clements) shares a cab with Nick Smith (Eigeman) and his friends coming out of a debutante party and is inadvertently invited to a party at Sally Fowler’s (Hundley) where he becomes a part of her Rat Pack, a group of affluent twentysomethings. Tom catches the eye of Audrey (Farina) and they eventually bond over a discussion about Jane Austen. Audrey is a sweet, virtuous girl, just like the heroine she admires in Austen’s book, Mansfield Park. Audrey loves Austen’s prose while Tom prefers good, literary criticism because, as he puts it, “that way you can get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it every really happened. It was all just made up by the author.”
Even though their group is known as the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, Nick is their unofficial leader dominating many of the conversations with his caustic wit. Tom is seen as something of an intriguing outsider (at one point, Nick notices that he lives on the Upper West Side). He’s not as rich as the others but is able to hold his own intellectually. Charlie (Nichols) doesn’t like Tom because he has a thing for Audrey and knows that she fancies this social interloper. Throughout it all, Nick is Tom’s way into the group and lays out the social rules for him (he shows him the proper etiquette and fashion tips). Tom is obviously the audience surrogate and along with him, we are immersed in this rarified social milieu.
Metropolitan takes place during the Christmas holidays and depicts the inevitable decline of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, much as Charlie theories early on in the film, confirming his fears of the decline of their generation. He even attempts to define it and frets that they are doomed to decline financially, lamenting the inevitable demise of the Preppie class. He also comes up with the term “Urban Haute Bourgeoisie” or UHB (pronounced “UB”) to describe his class but, in reality, it is just another word for Preppie. Initially, the characters in the movie may seem pretentious but I believe that Stillman wants us to see past this façade to the anxiety-ridden personas that lie beneath as typified by Charlie.
There is a certain timeless quality to the movie. There is no real indicator of the time period it is set in and this makes it the most enduring of Stillman’s three films – Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) – that form a loose knit trilogy of doomed Preppies in love. With Metropolitan, he has created a fully realized world with well-written characters that he has real affection for and this is something that doesn’t come through in Woody Allen’s work (at least not recently).
There is an audio commentary by Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen and actors Christopher Eigeman and Taylor Nichols. Stillman talks about working on a small budget and points out examples in the film where they cut costs. For example, they would tip sympathetic doormen at 4 am so that they could film shots of actors walking in and out of buildings. Eigeman and Nichols recall their impressions of working on what was their feature film debut. Stillman candidly confesses his technical shortcomings at the time – he had only gotten to chapter nine in the book, How to Direct a Movie. This is a relaxed, low-key track full of intelligent observations as you would expect from people responsible for a smart movie.
“Outtakes” features a montage of raw footage that was not used and includes blown line readings, several kinds of reaction shots for a given scene and a tribute to the film’s line producer who died in 1992.
There are two clips of “Alternate Casting” with optional commentary by Stillman. In one segment we see Will Kempe as Nick Smith who Stillman says was up for the role with Eigeman but he felt that ultimately, Kempe did not have the right kind of chemistry with Edward Clements that Eigeman did.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.