A few of my fellow bloggers reviewed director Whit Stillman‘s Damsels in Distress awhile back, a film I’m still hoping to see in the future. Until that happens I figured it’d make sense to see some of Stillman’s past work as a way of gauging my interest in his future films. Thanks to my local library I found Stillman’s third film (and the last until DiD came out), The Last Days of Disco. You should all know I’m a fan of all films that expertly detail music history and figured this would be a perfect fit for me. The Last Days of Disco grew on me throughout its 113 minutes but in the end I felt out of the loop. As the lead character Alice (Chloe Sevigny) says about one of the nightclubs “it’s a really hard club to get into,” that’s ultimately how I felt watching this film…that I was out of the Stillman club.
Set in “the very early 80s” the film follows a group of twenty-somethings as they discover life and love during the death throes of the disco era. Friends Alice (Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) spend their evenings clubbing and finding love. Through the course of their adventures they meet a bevy of different people who change them and discover their friendship is anything but.
If you had to describe the late 90s in film just say “the 70s.” Sure we now seem to be recycling the 80s but that’s through remakes as opposed to how it was in the 90s where the films were simply set in the 1970s. Boogie Night seems to be the go-to example of the 70s done through the lens of the 1990s but specifically there were two competing films focused firmly on disco: this and 54 which detailed life at the infamous Studio 54 (the movie isn’t that memorable or enjoyable from when I saw it). While Last Days of Disco is a coming-of-age, romantic story set in the clubs of the early 80s, I still didn’t find as cohesive a narrative as the go-to film in this vein: the aforementioned Boogie Nights.
What’s interesting is that, in theory, there are about two or three movie plotlines swirling around the central story of Charlotte and Alice. The film opens by introducing not only the two females, but the story of Des (Chris Eigeman) who works at the club and breaks up with women by telling them he’s gay. Those are the two stories that are established but no less than 4 other characters are given some chunk of screen time which just seems to pad out the story. I never felt connected to Des or his plotline involving another character named Josh (Matt Keeslar) who falls for Alice and works for the DEA….who happen to be investigating Des. That plot feels the most ridiculous and having all the characters become so interwoven by it makes it so laughable it sticks out like a sore thumb. Thankfully the DEA plot ramps up around the hour twenty mark. It’s the element that felt like it belonged to its competitor 54 (which came out a few months later) as that film focused more on the crash of the decadent era.
The main focus is Charlotte and Alice, two friends who aren’t “even sure we like each other.” Honestly I can see why because Charlotte is a terrible human being. Kate Beckinsale is a great playing a bitch let’s say that right now! Charlotte is the type of friend who believes she’s being “honest” when really she’s just plain mean. We’re introduced to the two women as Charlotte tells Alice that people secretly hate her and that while Charlotte is “a little bit cuter” than her that Alice is still a really good person (I’ve met a lot of Charlotte’s in my day). Charlotte constantly references how Alice and her weren’t “closer friends in college” but honestly, you can see why. Charlotte may be sexy and pretty, the go-to girl for a Alice who wants to be seen as all those things, but she’s so awful. At one point Alice questions whether Charlotte’s so-called advice “is for my benefit,” leading the audience to believe Alice is aware that their friendship is doomed.
Poor Alice is the soul of this film and Chloe Sevigny gives a great performance. Sevigny always puts her all into her performances but here she makes you believe she’s completely out of her element. She’s shy, never says the right thing, but it almost appears like she’s self-sabotaging herself especially in her relationship with married friend Tom (Robert Sean Leonard). At a certain point Alice tries to seduce Tom. She wants to be sexy and “live on the edge” but it’s obvious she’s uncomfortable with it. The scene moves from awkward to comical as Alice says all the wrong things but Tom is a jerk so he’ll take advantage. As the film progresses Charlotte pushes Alice and becomes extremely abusive towards her. Alice decides in one scene not to drink. Charlotte pushes and keeps telling people how weird it is that Alice isn’t drinking because she always drink. Well maybe it’s because she has the clap! Yeah, there’s meds that don’t mix with alcohol. Wow, so first Charlotte tells everyone she thinks Alice is a drunk, then she accuses her of having an STD! To add insult to the gross injury, Charlotte tells Alice it’s a good thing she has an STD because then guys will like her more! I understand the character truly thinks she’s being a good person, and the fact that the ending leaves her with Des who thinks like she does reinforces the idea that there will always be like-minded individuals, I just wanted to punch this girl!
The conversations between Alice and Charlotte and Alice and her friends is what keeps the movie going. The two girls are such polar opposites that all manner of characters enter their lives, and as long as the movie follows how said characters affect the two roommates the movie is rather enjoyable.There’s no denying that Whit Stillman is a strong writer. He adds in pop culture anecdotes that are intelligent and thought-provoking, more so than when Quentin Tarantino does it. There’s a brilliant discourse on gender that goes on between Charlotte and Des that sadly YouTube doesn’t have. The two discuss the various ways men and women see themselves that’s fascinating. The film also finds time to deconstruct Disney movies, specifically Bambi and Lady and the Tramp. Again, the pop culture references are nuanced and thought-provoking in this film. I’ve included the Lady and the Tramp scene for your enjoyment above.
I found myself engaged by the movie around the 37 minute mark but that’s over half an hour before the movie truly comes together. A lot has to do with the how the characters are introduced. It’s almost as if you’re supposed to know these people already and yet I was so confused. It doesn’t help that names aren’t used right away either so you have no connections, literally, to the characters. Even then I wasn’t connected to half the plots other than Alice and Charlotte. There’s an amazing speech given by Josh about how disco will never die and “those who don’t understand will never understand.” It’s a dual statement that applies to the decade and this film. I didn’t care for it and this speech seems to be saying that if you don’t understand, there’s no point. While I generally despise movies that say “well if you don’t get it you’re not smart” the film isn’t necessarily espousing that message. The Last Days of Disco tries to capture an era, more than 54 did, and if you didn’t live it then you can’t feel the connection to it. I do enjoy movies set in other decades and while I didn’t live them, I enjoy them but I do give the film a pass for at least acknowledging it’s inaccessibility.
I’ll still check out Damsels in Distress but I’ll be cautious about its “too cool for school attitude.” I liked The Last Days of Disco, I didn’t hate it, but I wouldn’t watch it again and I wouldn’t cite as one of the best movies trying to represent the decade. It does give an honest portrayal of the era, removing the choreographed dancing and white suits we’ve all come to expect, but without all that it removes a bit of the magic of the era. The acting is great, especially by Sevigny, but the rest of the actors and stories were simply okay.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.