Wednesday 26 October 2011

Movie Review: The Last Days Of Disco (1998)

A confused look back at the New York club scene in the dying days of disco music, The Last Days Of Disco is an attempt at glossy art that is patchy at best, inhabited by self-indulgent characters keen to demonstrate a faux intellectualism while partying and snorting themselves to waste.

The thin story line centres around Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), two lowly book readers trying to get a promotion to Associate Editors at a New York publishing house. Alice and Charlotte are not exactly friends, and in fact Charlotte dominates an asymmetrical relationship, but they move into an apartment together. They have fun by regularly going to a disco and hanging out with colleagues and friends from college days.

The men in the movie are plenty, and with quantity comprehensively trumping quality they are utterly lacking in presence and charisma. Des is a womanizer with a healthy drug habit who pretends to be gay when he wants to dump girlfriends. Jimmy is in marketing and is not welcome at the club but always anyway finds a way to gain entry. Tom is a lawyer who has a one night stand with Alice and infects her with sexually transmitted diseases (plural). Josh is with the District Attorney's office, a manic depressive on assignment with a unit investigating tax evasion at the club. Dan is a co-worker with Alice and Charlotte, critical of their lifestyle but nevertheless spending an unhealthy amount of time with them. Bernie is the uncompromising owner of the club. Van works at the club mostly doing Bernie's dirty work. None of them establish any momentum as characters that we could care less about.

Writer and director Whit Stillman is celebrated in some circles, but the The Last Days Of Disco is as interesting as watching a disco ball. Captivating for a few minutes, the experience quickly becomes repetitive, rotational and yes, childish. All that needs to be said about the film's attempt at appearing cerebral is that one of the main conversations centres around the motivations of the characters in Disney's Lady And The Tramp. The Last Days Of Disco is the worst kind of vapid: boredom that is not self-aware.

The film is full of supposedly educated male characters obsessed with entering the right clubs, engaging in tax evasion, snorting coke and passing on sexually transmitted diseases. Yes, the disco era may have been all about that for those sucked into the lifestyle, but The Last Days Of Disco's attempt to cloak the culture with wordy discourse is either failed irony or just a plain fail. It's better, if more painful, to face the facts that chasing the good times on the disco floor on a nightly basis and snorting white powder were somewhat incompatible with the basic intelligence required to achieve success.

Despite the poor material, the two female leads shine, and along with the soundtrack of non-stop disco standards almost succeed in making the movie watchable. Chloe Sevigny acts with head tilts, eye angles and a sceptical mouth; her Alice is unconventionally attractive as an insecure wannabe book editor, easily influenced by her friends. Kate Beckinsale as Charlotte is more familiar and more bewitching as a self-confident, overbearing source of unsolicited advice delivered with utter coquettishness, quick to victimize Alice with a pile of amateur psychoanalysis designed to trample Alice's self-esteem and inflate Charlotte's insatiable ego. The relationship between Alice and Charlotte never seems real, but is nevertheless fascinating to watch as pure theatre.

The clothes, haircuts and volume of noise in the The Last Days Of Disco all seem suspiciously understated. The characters' appearances seem ironically stuck in the corporate world of the late 1990s, when the film was made, rather than the very early 1980s club scene. The conversations in the clubs take place in relaxed tones: in reality, no club worth the name played music at any volume except deafening, requiring conversations to be either shouted at close range or otherwise abandoned out of sheer exasperation.

The Last Days Of Disco ultimately achieves it's objective, although unintentionally: it is as lost as the culture it depicts.

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