Damsels in Distress (2011): Whit (Metropolitan) Stillman’s Comeback?

Twenty years ago, Whit Stillman was one of the hottest indie directors in the wake of his stunning debut, “Metropolitan,” which premiered at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival and later earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Over the past two decades, this gifted writer-director has made only a few films, “The Last days of Disco” and “Barcelona,” for one reason or another. We therefore welcome his new movie, the comedy “Damsels in Distress.”

Sony Pictures Classics will release “Damsels in Distress,” which world premiered at the 2011 Venice Film Fest to mixed critical response, in early April.

The appealing cast–stars Greta Gerwig (Greenberg, upcoming Arthur remake), Adam Brody, and Analeigh Tipton–is the best thing about this mediocre comedy.

“Damsels in Distress (a great Title)  is set Seven Oaks, an East Coast College with beautiful Greek Revival architecture and a boorish male student population. Decades after co-education arrival, the male “atmosphere” (and everything it entails) is still prevalent.

The comedy follows three beautiful, vastly different girls who set out to revolutionize life at a grungy East Coast university.  They are the dynamic leader Violet Wister (Gerwig), principled Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and the sexy Heather (Carrie MacLemore).

Initially, the women welcome the transfer student Lily (Tipton) into their group, which seeks to help severely depressed students with a program of good scent and musical dance numbers.

In due course, the girls become romantically entangled with different kinds of men, such as the slick Charlie (Brody), dreamboat Xavier (Hugo Becker) and the mad frat pack of Frank (Ryan Metcalf) and Thor (Billy Magnussen).  The men manage to threaten the girls’ friendship, mental welfare—and very sanity.

In individual sequences, but not as a whole, the movie displays Whitman’s unique sensibility, facility with dialogue, and acerbic comedy.

Problem is, we have seen similarly nasty high school and college comedies of this kind before, beginning with “Heathers” in 1989 and continuing with “Mean Girls” and others.

In fact, thematically, the subject (and its protagonists) has become a sub-genre.  Too bad that Stillamn has not chosen a more original comedy for his comeback after an hiatus of 13 years.