The Tide Is High

The Last Days of Disco
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Chris Eigeman is well on his way to becoming one of the great cads of the American screen. He has little competition, granted, now that our culture has replaced the stock figure of the heel with the stalker, the rogue with the sex criminal. Eigeman got his start playing the patently rude Nick in Metropolitan, Whit Stillman's debut(ante) comedy, and he stayed in rotten form for the writer and director's sophomore effort, Barcelona, portraying an undiplomatic naval officer, Fred. The actor's specialty is a kind of mild personality disorder. His characters doggedly and volubly pursue self-interests, obey impulses to speak tactless truths, and demonstrate a tireless will to prevaricate--no matter if they're found out. His eyes are beady--when he's got his mojo working, they flip from side to side like a Felix the Cat clock--and all his features seem crowded at the middle of his face. In affect and appearance Eigeman could be Hugh Grant's runt brother; where the Brit cloys with gentility, the American charms by boorishness.

The actor's latest role is Des, an assistant manager at the nightclub that is at the center of Stillman's latest, The Last Days of Disco. Like Fred and Nick before him, Des is a scoundrel of the first order. When we first see him on the crowded dance floor, he's trying to convince an unattended partner (Jennifer Beals) that his neglect has been caused by a sudden bout of homosexuality. "Wednesday was gay day," he tells a Euro-girlfriend in the next scene, while assuring her that their liaisons were not repellent. "You don't have to be some sweaty, horny, hetero he-ape to appreciate the beauty of women," he continues, half believing his own lie.

Turns out that a bit of credulity is required of the audience, too; Des's deceptions aside, the eight main characters of this ensemble comedy are all straight, white, and seemingly well-off. Legend has it that the disco era (the film is set "sometime in the very early '80s") included a fair amount of racial and sexual fraternization, although you wouldn't know it from Stillman's chosen cast--make that caste. Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are Hampshire grads starting out in the lower ranks of publishing while taking rent handouts from the folks; Alice's suitors, Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) and Josh (Matt Keeslar), are lawyers by way of Harvard. Stillman's focus on disco's gentry is not so much untrue as unrepresentative--the rough equivalent of trying to convey the experience of being a Packers fan without leaving the luxury boxes.

In fairness, the club where much of the film takes place is peopled with a rich assortment of motley queens and queers and topless men in silver body paint--though their participation in what Josh calls "the disco movement" amounts to little more than elaborate set dressing. "Look down," Charlotte says to Alice on the third balcony of the club. "We're in complete control. There are a lot of choices down there." Alice and Charlotte don't spend the entire film looking down on the rabble. They're not slumming, just leasing a new lifestyle.

Soon, circumstance--and a social disease or two--will begin to strip Alice and Charlotte of that prepossession. Sevigny (also seen in Kids and Gummo) captures Alice's ambivalence about the age of experimentation through an evenness of voice, a hesitation of body. As she and Tom hustle their way into his darkened bedroom--the soundtrack cooing "how do you like your love?" in the background--she pauses at the doorway. Though she doesn't wait long enough to consider the consequences, the character seems fleetingly aware that she's passing through a portal to another Alice. And Stillman, a wary but committed romantic, likes his love cerebral and uncertain, based more on words than action. It's a credit to the subtlety of his craft that we don't have to go into the bedroom after them.

The Last Days of Disco is filled with such elegant gestures. Though the film has been injected with an insistent montage of disco hits and some rhythmic editing to go with it, neatly scripted talk is the order of these last days. Stillman's characters, as ever, believe they can always define themselves by their declarations: Would they bet on the tortoise or the hare in a rematch? Is Tramp capable of changing for Lady, or is the old cur past redemption? These conversations carry real import--more than whatever deeds may result from their resolution.

In this sense, Stillman's movie takes place in a world without fully formed consequences. Though the characters are putatively adult--they hold down jobs, "ferociously pair off," snort a "gift" line--their ironic detachment from misfortune can leave them resembling overgrown teens: In this privileged realm, the voices of reason and maturity would sound like the incoherent squawk of the teachers and parents on a Peanuts special. And like Charlie Brown and Sally, Lucy and Linus, Stillman's characters are oddly ageless, his effervescent approach immune to time. This film would be charming even if we had to watch Des, Alice, Charlotte, and company on the ugly morning after the last day: conquering Wall Street, reading Jay McInerney, subscribing to Spy.

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