DAMSELS IN DISTRESS
DIRECTED BY Whit Stillman
STARS Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton
And here you thought The Avengers was the only new movie featuring a character named Thor. In Damsels in Distress, Thor (played by Billy Magnussen) isn't a hunk with a hammer but a lunk who gets hammered. He's a frat boy attending the film's fictional Seven Oaks college — and so dumb that he can't even properly name colors. Clearly, a majestic God of Thunder he ain't.
It doesn't quite match the 20-year stretch when Terrence Malick sat out cinema (between 1978's Days of Heaven and 1998's The Thin Red Line), but until Damsels in Distress, writer-director-producer Whit Stillman hadn't made a movie in 14 years — and that's something akin to a tragedy. The Stillman canon had consisted of only three pictures — affectionately tagged the "Yuppie Trilogy," it began with 1990's Metropolitan (one of the openings shots fired in the new golden age of independent cinema), ran through 1994's Barcelona and ended with 1998's The Last Days of Disco. His movies seem to have been made by, for and about the intelligentsia, with erudite and impeccably groomed characters — the type you'd never catch in Wal-Mart or in Burger King or, heck, in multiplexes showing fare like The Avengers — discussing life, literature, politics, social mores, and other weighty fare that's becoming increasingly ignored in a society weaned on Jersey Shore and Charlie Sheen.
The damsels of the title are the members of a clique dedicated to spreading what they perceive to be wisdom and kindness all over campus. There's Violet (Greta Gerwig), the team leader who believes that women should only date stupid and unattractive guys as a gift to the males and a self-protective parry for themselves; Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), the cool Brit who pegs every attentive man as a smooth operator; Heather (Carrie MacLemore), the pretty, perky and petite brunette whose I.Q. often comes closer to matching that of the guys than the other girls; and Lily (Analeigh Tipton), the willowy campus newcomer who's quickly absorbed into the group but ends up constantly challenging Violet's methods and musings.
It would be wonderful to report that Damsels in Distress marks a completely triumphant return for Stillman, yet while it's certainly recommendable, it falls short of his '90s output. The dialogue, always Stillman's strongest suit (he earned his sole Oscar nomination to date for Metropolitan's original screenplay), remains a constant delight, with Violet's circular logic and turn of phrases particular high points ("doofi," which she states is an acceptable plural form of "doofus," might be my new favorite word). But while none of Stillman's movies could be described as heavy on plot, this one often meanders to the point of distraction, with some of these out-of-left-field sequences working (a tribute to Fred Astaire's "Things Are Looking Up" musical number from 1937's A Damsel in Distress) while others run aground (a curiously dismissive take on homosexuals coming out of the closet). The performances are acceptable, although Gerwig remains an acquired taste; unfortunately, what the movie is crucially missing is a role for Chris Eigeman, who was a constant source of cynical pleasure in Stillman's three previous works. It would have been fun to watch an Eigeman character verbally joust with Violet, as no one but Lily comes even close. Still, while Damsels in Distress falls short of its potential, there's no denying that a half Whit is preferable to no wit at all.