Bored with the Boogie
A perfect example of the movie as mass-produced sideshow, 54 lures ordinary folk into theaters with the promise that, 20 years later, even we can gain admittance to the world's most exclusive nightclub. Studio 54 was the disco renowned for its drug-fueled, celeb-infested, pan-sexual bacchanals, after all--but even with such tantalizing ingredients at hand, it's quickly apparent that what director Mark Christopher has created is a remarkably bland mush. The film's sappy prologue serves as a warning of sorts. A disco rendition of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" plays over a montage of club scenes while a voice intones: "A guy named Steve Rubell had a dream, to throw the best damn party the world had ever seen."
There are a few more lines, which, thankfully, don't rhyme--but then we cut to New Jersey, where the film's narrator, Sean O'Shea (Ryan Phillippe), is living out a miserable longhair existence with his goonish buddies. Frank Sinatra-like, he gazes longingly across the river at Manhattan. There's just gotta be a way outta Jersey! Sean convinces his friends to go to Studio 54, but only he gets hand-picked by Steve Rubell himself (Mike Myers). So he enters, gets disco religion, surrenders to the night, etc. He goes home and tells his lumpen family about it--Dad's not impressed--and soon afterward he lands a job at 54. He moves in with fellow busboy Greg (Breckin Meyer) and his wife Anita (Salma Hayek), a coat-check girl; gets promoted to bartender; becomes a minor celebrity; bangs a lot of babes; and discovers that life's kind of empty at "the top."
But will Sean ever get along with his dad? How will getting the clap affect his sex life? What about his unrequited love for soap star Julie (Neve Campbell)? Can Anita make it as a disco singer? Is Rubell on to Greg's inside money-skimming job? When will the IRS sniff out Rubell's own corruption? And do you care about any of this?
Not really. 54 is mediocre in a curious way, as everything and nothing seem to occur simultaneously. Characters drop in and out, and you wonder when something will happen, even though many events have, indeed, occurred. That one even thinks about this during the movie is perhaps the best testament to its dullness. Despite Christopher's struggles to pin a story on a hedonistic free-for-all, the essence of Studio 54 remains as elusive as the glittering confetti that would periodically rain down on its revelers.
Rubell should have been 54's main story, even though re-creating his celebrity cohorts would have been difficult. (Here, Truman and Andy are the only recognizable celebrities to make brief appearances.) Myers plays the club's co-owner as a weirdly lovable guy, equal parts sleaze and cheese, a preppy nerd who was famously ruthless about others' appearances. (It's said that the real scene at 54 was outside, watching people try to get in.) I saw 54 with a friend who worked for Rubell at Palladium, his other club, and she said Myers had the guy down pat: the laugh, the druggy insouciance alternating with hardheaded business savvy, and even the way he'd spit up into his hand in the wee hours, so zonked on various substances that he couldn't stand up by himself.
So while 54 doesn't shy away from drugs, it's quite timid when it comes to sex--especially the same-sex variety, even though Christopher first gained attention for his gay-themed short films. Aside from two het scenes, there's Rubell's unsuccessful pass at a busboy, a quick shot of two guys kissing, and c'est tout. And what of Rubell's ranks of shirtless homo-hunk bartenders--the wild, privileged golden boys of the club? Well, they're merely set-dressing for the one straight in their midst, Sean. (Those counting on '70s-era gay decadence would do well to wait for Todd Haynes's upcoming Velvet Goldmine, which reportedly has no problem with hot boys shagging each other.)
Nixing the celebrities and avoiding the gays, Christopher expects we'll be taken with the novelty of an elderly club regular played by a woman whom many will recognize as the rappin' granny from The Wedding Singer. Like I said, 54 is a sideshow flick. And after meandering without purpose into a nostalgia-soaked ending, it delivers a final, teasing jab: Alongside the end credits are paparazzi-style snaps of the real Rubell and friends--Halston, Mick, Brooke, Truman, Liza--frolicking at the club in its heyday. Studio 54 is an unseen presence, glamorous and mysterious, beyond the photo borders. These pictures leave something to one's own imagination--and that's a fine alternative to this stolid film.
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