Writer-director Whit Stillman (“Barcelona,” “Metropolitan”) returns from a 14-year hiatus with another of his typical deadpan treatises on the young and the wealthy.
Forgive the whip-smart Whit Stillman if he’s a bit “Clueless” with “Damsels in Distress,” his first film in 14 years. It’s just that he’s busy indulging his inner Jane Austen by writing and directing an erudite comedy of manners involving four fashion-conscious young women out to prove the importance of good hygiene and happy hoofing to their male-centric peers at an upscale Northeastern university.
Austen would no doubt be proud of what Stillman has molded in her image, especially the mellifluous dialogue dripping with cleverness and irony, as he subtly pokes fun at Greeks, jocks and the academically challenged. I can’t remember when I laughed so hard, and so long. It’s the equivalent of Woody Allen in his prime, but with Stillman’s familiar lacerating wit laced throughout. Nothing is off limits, including the film’s riotous digs at the amateur shrinks manning the desk at Seven Oaks College’s suicide prevention center, where doughnuts and dance are preferred treatments over talk therapy and anti-depressants.
Add in a few allusions to the kinky properties of Cathar Love and the transformative powers of well-scented soap and you have a crazy mash-up of genres and ideas that, despite their absurdity, somehow come out making sense. What sells it, though, are the performances, from the four young ladies (Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore and Analeigh Tipton) on a mission to boost the fortunes of their “inferior men,” to the targets of those well meaning, but misguided attempts: Adam Brody, Hugo Becker, Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen.
All eight actors thrive in the avant-garde world Stillman creates for them on a Greek-revival campus that is familiar in its look, but surreal in its notable absence of smart phones and laptops, an omission that renders “Damsels” both quaint and timeless. The standout, though, is Gerwig (“Greenberg”), who delivers a career-best turn as Violet, the arrogant, but benevolent, leader of fellow flower girls: smart, but cynical Rose (Echikunwoke working a convincing British accent); sexy, but dim Heather (MacLemore); and wise, free-thinking Lily (Tipton), the newest, most skeptical member of the gang.
Gerwig simply does it all, singing and dancing one minute and mastering deadpan humor the next. She even gets the film’s handful of dramatic moments exactly right. On the male side, Brody (“The O.C.”) does most of the scene stealing as Charlie, an alleged businessman (he’s in the George Costanza-like field of “strategic development”) who first sets his sights on Lily, but eventually winds up being sucked into Violet’s wonky orbit. Metcalf as Frank and Magnussen as Thor give Brody a run for his money with their hilarious portrayals of doltish fraternity brothers from DU house (a running joke has Seven Oaks using Roman letters on its frats instead of Greek ones) who somehow graduated high school without learning to identify colors (I know, it sounds stupid, but believe me, it’s funny).
The closest we get to a straight man is Becker’s French-accented ladies dude, Xavier (wait ‘til you hear the girls debate whether or not his name should be spelled with an X or a Z), a devout follower of the Cathar belief that it’s better to mount a rear attack during love-making due to the movement’s tenant that the vagina is sacrosanct. Yes, Xavier is the butt of a lot of jokes, yet Becker somehow always manages to look debonair.
He, like the rest of the cast, which includes funny cameos by Aubrey Plaza as an emotionally wrought student and Nick Blaemire as the suicide center’s lead dance instructor, Freak Astaire, delivers every line of Stillman’s to-die-for dialogue with precision. And although the themes of clueless rich kids acting boorishly are very much the same as in Stillman’s biggest hits, “Metropolitan” and “Barcelona,” the light and breezy “Damsels” more than stands on its own as an Austen-tatious delight that, like its closing Gershwin tune, will have you believing that indeed “Things Are Looking Up.”
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (PG-13.) Cast includes Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody. Written and directed by Whit Stillman. 3.5 stars out of 4.