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Damsels In Distress
The Hot Press Newsdesk, 19 Apr 2012
Greta Gerwig’s innocence shines in quirky but insubstantial campus comedy.
Covertly WASPy director Whit Stillman is an odd creature. During his 22-year career, he has only come out of hibernation for four films, the last three providing sharply-written observations about the urban haute bourgeoisie as they experience stylised Jane Austen-like comedies of manners. And, as a Harvard graduate and godson to the sociologist who coined the term ‘WASP’, he has a wealth of material to draw from.
However, while Stillman’s flair for sharp dialogue and wonderful whimsy has survived his 13-year long hiatus, the target of his satire seems to have become lost in a sea of endlessly repeated jokes, impenetrably affected characters and jazzy dance numbers. Damsels In Distress is prettily quirky and distracting, but Stillman has sacrificed his trademark dark humour for a more pastel palette.
Though for pretty pastel protagonists, petals don’t come more precious than Greta Gerwig. Playing Violet, the queen-bee of a ditsy and didactic collegiate bouquet made up of wary newcomer Lily (Crazy, Stupid, Love’s Analeigh Tipton), ‘British’ Rose and naïve Heather, Gerwig is a wonderfully wide-eyed combination of affectations and eccentricities. Heading up the group’s naïve, doughnut and tap-dancing-based treatment at the college’s ‘Suicide Centre’ and their charitable ‘adopt a stupid frat-boy’ scheme, Violet’s smug, Stepford solipsism conceals a deep vulnerability.
As the young ladies navigate playboy “operators” (Adam Brody), suicidal tendencies and ambitions to create an international dance craze, Stillman piles on deadpan sarcasm and some superb one-liners, bringing into focus the girls’ youthful narcissism and delusion.
But for every zinging one-liner, there are endless infuriatingly undeveloped plot points and unrealised hints at satire. The twentysomethings’ insecure susceptibility to groupthink is constantly touched on, whether it be outward affectations, depression, idiotic fraternities, cultish religions or potentially demeaning sex fads, but none is explored in detail. Neither are the characters, who – apart from Violet – remain emotionless shells at best, and farcical, colour-confused idiots at worst. Even the date of the film’s setting remains vague, further adding to the confusion: who is Stillman talking to, and who about? (Or should that be about whom?)