By Thom Bennett
Debutantes and their dates: Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” was a tough sell amongst its indie peers when it came to be in 1990. Sixteen years on and only three films later, Stillman still has little, if anything, in common with his contemporaries. But “Metropolitan” remains one of a handful of post-Sundance American independent films that helped, for better or worse, to open the floodgates for a generation of filmmakers and their films.
It’s the simple story of a guy named Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) who somewhat accidentally and reluctantly becomes a part of New York debutante society during one fateful Christmas season “not so long ago.” He falls in with a crowd who call themselves the Sally Fowler Rat Pack (or SFRP for short) in honor of the frequent hostess of their get-togethers. Tom befriends Nick (Chris Eigeman), the caustic observer of the group, and attracts the interest of sweet, Jane Austen-obsessed Audrey (Carolyn Farina). Charlie (Taylor Nichols) is leery of Tom’s acceptance by the group and himself harbors a secret crush on Audrey. Tom, who comes from a middle-class background, is an outsider who at first acts dismissive of the SFRP’s neo-aristocratic lifestyle. However, he’s quickly caught up in the comings and goings of the group, leading to a comical and touching showdown at the Southampton home of Nick’s arch-enemy and renowned womanizer Rick von Sloneker.
“Metropolitan” went on to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay (losing to the bewilderingly bad “Ghost”) and win an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. But Stillman’s debut film has more in common with Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” than with the army of Scorsese imitations that arrived at the same time, and, unlike many of those more heralded films and filmmakers, holds up remarkably well. The insightful and often hilarious dialogue is the true star of the film and is indicative of a rare first-time filmmaker mature enough to stick with what he knows and do something great with it.
Once again, we have Criterion to thank for giving a great film the treatment it deserves. The special edition DVD comes with a captivating commentary by Stillman and actors Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols, who discuss, among other things, the making of the film on a shoestring budget and how out of place it was at the time. Stillman’s subsequent films, “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco,” deal with similar themes in different eras and places with fine results however, “Metropolitan” remains an essential American independent film by one of the great underappreciated American filmmakers of his generation.
The “Metropolitan” DVD will be released by the Criterion Collection on February 14.