By Eleanor Ringel Cater
The Damsel in the most distress during Whit Stillman’s arch new comedy, “Damsels in Distress,” was undoubtedly me.
Precious and self-consciously hyper-verbal, “Damsels” takes place in some time-out-of-mind (read, timeless, I guess?) leafy college known as Seven Oaks (the Seven Sisters meet the Kentucky Oaks?)
Stillman’s love of stilted highbrow language served him well in his earliest movies, “Metropolitan” and Barcelona” — both set among a certain social set who all know what an offhand reference to Gatsby’s shirts mean.
The implication was, they knew little else, so no wonder they married each other and engendered more stiff-upper-lip oddities with a peerless grasp of both the King’s English and the Queen’s family tree.
What set Stillman apart was, 1), he was kind to this endangered species and 2) he understood them.
You don’t get many moviemakers in Hollywood who truly “get” the debutante scene (in all its various locations). A vulgar wedding a la “Goodbye Colombus,” no problem.
So Stillman writes (when he writes; it’s been 14 years since his last movie) as someone who knows the territory. But this time, the blue-blood chatter is nothing more than that: chatter.
Our leader (a la “Clueless”) is Violet (Greta Gerwig), a college junior with an aggressive jaw and a wardrobe of tea-length dresses (look it up). Her, uh, posse is similarly floral sounding bunch named Rose, Heather and Lily.
Their white-gloved mission in life is to help those less fortunate than their near-perfect selves. This could mean running the campus Suicide Prevention Center (the best cure: tap dancing). Or it might translate into dating boys who are impaired in so many ways — socially, intellectually, cuteness-ly — that merely holding their hand is an act of supreme sacrifice.
Boys, of course, no matter how socially handicapped, do come between these girls. Yet all ends well at Violet’s Creation Of A New Dance wing-ding.
“Damsels” feels like it would work a whole lot better if it were set a whole lot earlier. Say, in the same mythic time as “Anything Goes,” with rah-rah straw hats and rah-rah-ier letter sweaters
But lord, how dull and insular the film seems. I realize that, on some level, it’s supposed to be that way (well, insular…). And I applaud Stillman for his skill. But just how long can one trudge through a prissy gloss on Henry James without yelling “Uncle!”
Or maybe “Uncle’s Trust Fund!”
“Damsels in Distress” mostly just made me tired. Tired of bon mots and intricately constructed dialogue and college students who seem to exist in a parallel universe. Stillman still knows the territory. The problem is, do we? Or maybe, do we care?