Based around Whit Stillman’s own experiences while in Washington D.C. in late 1970, Metropolitan is a hilarious film that presents us with human characters of the debutante society (during debutante season). Featuring characters that could easily count as irritable or unlikable, we are shown men and women who we’ve come to know as (or feel are or are represented as) one-dimensional and who are given the true three-dimensional treatment.
They may not all be dynamic characters, but in a way (given the film’s time frame), not only is this deliberate, but very difficult. Over the course of about one December week in Manhattan, we see Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) get involved in the high society lives of a few privileged preppies (a name one character thinks is inappropriate and not reflective of their group).
The greatest thing this film does is dialogue (it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay). What makes it hilarious for me is how accurate, yet, satirical it feels: People do have these sorts of conversations and it feels genuine in this film. While one could argue people in real life don’t always (if ever) speak the way these characters do, the fact that they actually do (to some degree or extent) is what makes it so brilliant.
Regardless of the time period this film takes place in and regardless of what “social class” you belong to, there is much to admire in the way it deconstructs high society and its players. In many respects, the film is old fashioned in the way of its comedy, only sticking to dialogue that never feels forced; at no point do crazy things happen for the sake of comedy and all that does happen is to either push the story forward or help us learn more about the characters.
As aforementioned, majority of the characters don’t actually develop; instead, they are learned about, researched in a way, as Upper West Side Tom gets to know the Upper East Siders a bit more each day — As Tom gets to realize who and how these people really are, so do we. Tom himself is an interesting character, being on a much different spectrum than the other characters (he has less resources, lives on a different side of town, has old fashioned socialist views, and doesn’t even like debutante events); his interactions with the “urban haute bourgeoisie” are nothing short of hysterical.
We are given an insight into the lives of these characters who, as it should be, live in quite a different world than Tom. For starters, the film is based around a sort of lifestyle that may have all but vanished during the film’s actual time frame (a story written about the early 1970’s that takes place in the very late 1980’s); this is reflected upon by a couple characters, notably Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) and Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols). Throughout the film, the debutante’s themselves provide commentary about their lives and ways of thinking (philosopher Charlie leads these proceedings while Nick the cynic complains about everything).
As might be expected and/or feared in a film such as this, a sort of romance begins to bloom between Tom and Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), which, unexpectedly and unsurprisingly, has its share of problems. Thankfully, this romance is never given primary focus, and becomes just another topic of discussion this film (and its characters) addresses, which of course makes it no less important.
It’s the topics and themes that I admired most. Like a novel from so long ago, the topics discussed here haven’t aged a day, bringing up questions of one’s own class, how the times are, and how (at least to Nick) the current generation of young people is the worse one there’s ever been (circa 1974/1989, mind you).
Something else worthy of note is the way the whole thing goes along: At the start of the film, things are quite lively and giddy, but by the end, the film and its characters (and their events) have lost steam. At first I thought this may have been a flaw in the film until I realized how much this was just a reflection of the events conspiring on screen: As the week goes by and as the gatherings become more empty and less frequent, it becomes more apparent whom the characters really are and what they’re really up to; the characters themselves get bored as the “norm” begins to take over again at the end of their winter break and debutante season.
With charm, honesty, hilarity, and authenticity, Metropolitan manages to address timeless issues while also presenting us with a fantastic and wonderful look at a group of young men and women who, at the core of it all, aren’t so different from the rest of us.