In the three films he made during the 1990s, Whit Stillman established himself as the Evelyn Waugh of independent filmmaking, equally a sort of Woody Allen of the prep-school set. His movies are jaunty, lighthearted satires of young upper East Siders, yuppies and the proudly bourgeoisie.
He's followed these preppy, pompous and questionably well-bred characters into their postadolescence ("Metropolitan," 1990), international exploits ("Barcelona," 1994) and big-city career moves ("The Last Days of Disco," 1998). After more than a decade hiatus from filmmaking, Stillman returns to the stop he skipped with "Damsels in Distress," a movie about college life. To put it bluntly, this is the fourth-best movie out of Stillman's four, but it is still, for the most part, an enjoyable farce, helped immensely by the charisma of up-and-coming star Greta Gerwig.
Set at a private Northeastern college, the movie is at times a very humorous slice of university life, the four-year period when a lot of people discover themselves. This self-discovery lends itself to Stillman's ear for quirky dialogue, while he follows four of the most forward, fearless flibbertigibbets of the school, a coven of concerned co-eds led by Violet (Gerwig), who stops pontificating only when she's asleep. At least that's what one assumes. We never see her sleeping, even though we see her in bed. And even in bed, she's talking.
Violet might grow tiresome if she weren't so a) cute, and b) unabashedly full of the most over-the-top, stream-of-consciousness ideas and observations, colloquially referred to as lunacy. Her ideas flow from the ridiculous to the harebrained to the so ridiculously harebrained they just might be worth thinking about. If not, at least they're amusing. Proud of her work at the suicide-prevention center, for example, she asserts that, unlike other preventions, which "are nine-tenths of the cure, suicide prevention is ten-tenths of the cure." Yet her main prevention technique seems to be free doughnuts and coffee, which she jealously guards from those who might be pretending for a free breakfast.
Violet is like a super upbeat radical radio host. She doesn't always make sense, but she's never dull. Her philosophy on romance is exemplary of her overall peculiarity. Blonde, blue-eyed, slim and outgoing, she insists on dating the worst idiots from the local fraternities, because, she insists, they have the most potential for improvement. Her gaggle of yes girls who follow her around simply nod and approve, including Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and newly inducted clique member, Lily (Analeigh Tipton).
Although Lily brings the first inkling of skepticism and dissent into Violet's highly categorized and classified world, these secondary damsels are where Stillman's latest comes up a little short, at least compared with his other work. His previous films included odd takes on buddy pictures and ensemble films, but the supporting figures in "Damsels" don't have enough personality to balance Violet. She's a one-woman show who runs away with it. You never know where it's going, and unfortunately that ends up not mattering because it never really gets anywhere.
The story is never the central issue in a Stillman film, and yet all three of his previous comedies were tightly constructed. "Damsels" is frayed at the ends; it offers a similar concoction of young minds humorously making molehills out of mountainous intellectual curiosity, but this time without the support of a fully formed narrative and supporting cast. Stillman seems to have been bitten by third-act problems for the first time and his film disintegrates in its final sequences into a disconnected series of vignettes, the characters' purposes dropping completely out of focus.
That said, "Damsels" is still, for at least its first two movements, different enough and funny enough to recommend, although a few last words of warning might benefit those not attuned to the Stillman universe. Be warned (or encouraged) that this isn't a college comedy about pot smoking and parties. It's about elevated speech patterns and pseudo-intellectual gibber jabber, about the heedless determination to assess things free of pesky influences like experience and humility.
Unfortunately the film also is not, like the rest of the director's work, about falling in love with the characters and their story and seeing them through. In the final grade, "Damsels in Distress" must be counted a college dropout, but it's a lot of fun while it lasts. (PG-13) 99 min. S