In a tone that can only be an allusion to the orgiastic wealth of “The Great Gatsby,” Charlie (Adam Brody), a rich businessman in a run-down bar, says to a potential girlfriend that he wishes to write his thesis about the decline of decadence. “Take the flit movement in literature, or homosexuality,” he says in explanation. “It’s gone completely downhill […] Before, homosexuality was something refined, hidden, sublimated, aspiring to the highest forms of expression and often achieving them. Now it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts.” When asked, understandably, if he is gay, Charlie responds, “Not especially, but in another era, it would have had more appeal.”
“Decline of decadence,” although seemingly a short phrase used for a punchy exchange, in fact describes the theme of director Whit Stillman’s new film, “Damsels in Distress.” Taking the dynamism and humor of “Mean Girls” to a higher, wittier level, the film succeeds as a reaction against trashy comedies and disingenuous depictions of college life. Rather, it uses brilliant characterization and story development and clever one-liners to combine cohesively this snarkiness with a portrait of upper-class college life.
Stillman introduces the college campus through the eyes of Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a sophomore transfer student. Lily moves in with the college’s elite gal group, which—defying expectations—is more than the cliquey archetype so overused by other films. Instead, the female leads, sharp and intelligent, toe the line between over-zealous humanitarians and materialistic coeds. Amusingly, part of their mission involves bettering the human condition by working at a suicide prevention center; this involvement becomes even funnier when the girls begin sending soap samples throughout the school to increase student happiness.
The girls themselves represent a range of caricatures-turned-characters as well. Violet (Greta Gerwig) masks precocious wisdom behind a veil of emotional sensitivity, demonstrating surprising perceptiveness when discussing the suicide center with Lily, who doubts the efficacy of the program. Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), on the other hand, offers little beyond a repeated non-sequitur, albeit one of the funniest jokes of the film. Heather (Carrie MacLemore), quickly established as the dreamer of the group, pines after Thor (Billy Magnussen), a sweet-intentioned buffoon who is part of the school’s punnily-named Roman system. Lily acts as a check on the girls’ actions, as well as a provides a romantic storyline with charming outsider Xavier (Hugo Becker) and businessman Charlie.
The men of the film, especially the Romans, when compared to the girls, further display this theme of falls from elegance. Frank (Ryan Metcalf), a dim-witted simpleton, is so absurdly aloof and unaware that Violet’s initial interest in him seems to go over his head. Thor has the unique flaw of not knowing the names of colors, as his parents had made him skip the kindergarten, which Heather finds endearing. Xavier, who seems nothing more than a reserved French gentleman, shatters this classy image by participating in a religion that requires unconventional sex practices.
More than the convincing theme and edgy leads, the strength of the film is the continuous slew of witty one-liners and hilarious developments. From Violet and Rose’s judgmental jabs to the Romans’ almost disturbing demonstrations of their ignorance, the audience is kept laughing out loud throughout the entire film. It is this wit that distinguishes “Damsels in Distress” from so many other films that attempt to perceive the materialism of youth culture. From Rose’s line “operator playboy” to Violet’s high-drama declarations to the absurdity of creating a new dance craze (which amusingly takes over the plot near the end of the film), “Damsels in Distress” is refreshingly funny.
What begins as a picture of collegiate aestheticism and ends as a fun homage to youth culture, “Damsels in Distress” promises to rouse a cult following and create an iconic testament to changing times.