Andrew Hultkrans on Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan

Whit Stillman, Metropolitan, 1990, Super 16, color, sound, 98 minutes.

A CONFESSION: I am a lapsed preppy. Using the term feels false, though—an affectation—as I was not a prep school/Ivy League legacy, which was the defining characteristic of true preppies in my day. My parents were not blue bloods but middle-class people from sleepy states (Minnesota, Vermont) who met in New York in the early 1960s. We were not wealthy and lived on the “border” of the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem, but it was important to my mother that I attend “the best schools.” And so I did, starting with a private boys’ school in Manhattan (coat and tie from kindergarten on), leaving home for a leafy New England boarding school (Third through Sixth Forms), and then matriculating to that ancient university in Cambridge, Massachusetts (spires, not domes) known for its monstrous self-regard. My father died of brain cancer when I was twelve, and my mother struggled with tuition until she too died shortly before my college graduation.

In short, my background was parallel to that of Metropolitan writer-director Whit Stillman (minus the great-grandfather banker/patriarch), one generation later. I went to school with Rockefellers and Roosevelts. I escorted young women to debutante balls, three sheets to the wind in white tie and tails. I knew the types of people Stillman celebrated in his debut film; in fact, I knew one of its cast members personally. My internal perspective on that milieu, when I was in it, was fairly well represented by Metropolitan’s Tom Townsend, the slightly pretentious, intellectually self-serious character of “limited resources” and left-leaning impulses who has to rent his tuxedo (the shame) and is nominally of that world but forever outside of it. Whenever asked about him, I say that Whit Stillman makes horror movies about my upbringing. The “exoticism” of his preferred tableau of privileged youth, which I think of as WASP porn, is lost on me. I lived it, and I can say that it was both more interesting and more boring than he makes it out to be.

Metropolitan is currently enjoying a theatrical re-release in honor of its twenty-fifth anniversary, and it comes at an odd time in American history, a postcrash hangover period marked by extreme income inequality and the attendant vilification of the ultrarich 1 percent. I look forward to reading reviews by critics, currently in their twenties, who haven’t seen the film before. They may understandably have a more bemused view of the princesses and princelings of Park Avenue than my own generation did at the time of its initial release. They may regard this klatch of preppies as impossibly distant, relics from a rapidly receding past, viewing them as I might view knights in chain mail. But then they might miss the Jane Austen references and F. Scott patina that settles on the characters like a light Christmas snowfall.

To the film: Right away we’re in cucumber-sandwiches-with-the-Auchinclosses territory with the credit sequence’s Jazz Age font and Stillman’s production company names: “Westerly Films in association with Allagash Films” (I went to school with someone named LeGrand Elebash). The setting is “Manhattan. Christmas Vacation. Not so long ago.” A group of well-heeled young friends, self-titled the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, attend a series of debutante balls. On the way out of the first ball, they encounter “outsider” Tom Townsend. He goes to Princeton and has a wealthy father, but his parents have divorced and Tom has been disinherited, so he lives with his mother in a modest Upper West Side apartment. (This plot point mirrors Stillman’s own adolescence, though he went to Harvard, not Princeton.) Despite his Holden Caulfield–like contempt for the socialite scene (he quickly declares that he’s a Fourierist), Tom is taken in by the Rat Pack’s snobbiest member and ends up joining the group as an escort for the rest of the balls. There is a classic love triangle and a lot of talk—one of the Rat Pack is a somewhat preposterous pseudointellectual who insists on engaging the others in extended discourses on love, life, and the finer points of social class. By the end, the clique largely scatters, but the love triangle appears to resolve in the correct way.

What Metropolitan gets right: the complete absence of parents other than the mothers of the two characters who don’t fit in (Tom and the shy woman who has a crush on him, Audrey). In my day, such parents—often divorced or otherwise mired in solipsistic pursuits—were distant cyborgs who let their teenagers play-act at “adult” social life in their opulent living rooms while they went out or retired to bed early. Their lack of involvement in their children’s actual lives was staggering and allowed for much more serious debauchery than anything the Rat Pack got up to in the film. (I have a pet theory that my generation’s tendency toward helicopter parenting is an overcorrection of this dynamic.) Failing all else, you would occasionally end up at J.G. Melon, a small, dive-ish pub on the corner of Seventy-Fourth Street and Third Avenue, late at night, as two of the male characters do after an unsuccessful bid to recapture the camaraderie of the deb ball nights. Southampton was indeed known for its European aristocracy and nouveaux riches, another country entirely from the Waspish false modesty and “arts colony” vibe of the equally moneyed Easthampton. Distinguished by his baronial title and way with date rape, Rick Von Sloneker, the villain of the piece, rings somewhat true (particularly in Southampton), but he’s a type—a mildly menacing, casually sociopathic rich kid. Patrick Bateman would eat him for breakfast.

But I never met (or even heard of) anyone remotely like the self-consciously dandyish and proudly snobby Nick Smith (played by Stillman regular Chris Eigeman) or the annoyingly earnest house “philosopher” Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), who frets throughout the film about his class’s downward mobility and ultimate failure (which is nevertheless a real phenomenon, known as “WASP Rot”—see George W. Bush). It may be unfair to fault a fiction film for its lack of verisimilitude, but Metropolitan’s cheap but resourceful cinematography and fly-on-the-wall view of an exclusive clique of upper-crust “insiders” gives the film a quasi-documentary feel, and it’s no secret that the script draws heavily on Stillman’s own college years. Stillman has said that he was trying to “preserve in amber” a real scene that he directly experienced, so I can’t help but compare it to a later iteration of the same scene.

When I mentioned the cliché characterization of Stillman as the “WASP Woody Allen” to a friend of mine, a well-known Jewish essayist and film critic who hails from Brooklyn, he responded, “Woody Allen is the WASP Woody Allen,” which made me laugh. And that’s the problem with Stillman—we don’t need a WASP Woody Allen; Woody holds it down just fine for Manhattan’s mayonnaise set. As over-the-top as its satire is, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (book, not film) felt more true to what I went through than anything in Stillman’s filmography. Indeed, had Stillman transposed Ellis’s Less than Zero from LA to the Upper East Side, I might have warmed to that version of Metropolitan. It may be asking too much for characters who value traditional social conventions to be more unconventional, but there it is. Stillman’s characters are trying to become their parents as fast as they can; we put it off for as long as possible. I managed to avoid it entirely. Ta-ta.

The twenty-fifth-anniversary theatrical re-release of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan opens Friday, August 7, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and August 14 at Laemmle’s Royal in Los Angeles, with additional openings in select cities to follow. Stillman and members of the cast will be available for Q&As August 7-9.