An entirely different slice of New York — real, or perhaps imagined — is served in the 1990 sleeper Metropolitan [Criterion]. This first-time film from director/writer/producer Whit Stillman follows a group of debutantes and their escorts — home from their first semester of college — through a Christmas week of society balls at the Plaza, plus late-night after-parties on upper Park Avenue.
This setup, in a different time and place, might have served as the springboard for any sort of jolly comedy; back in the '30s it would have been "Dinner at Eight" for 20-year-olds. But Stillman — who clearly knows this world — was looking at something more like the disintegration of civilization. The civilization of debs and their dates, anyway. The more analytical of the group know, even as they go through the paces, that they are dinosaurs: WASP preppies embarking on a world in which privileged pedigree no longer brings privilege.
"Metropolitan" tells of an outsider — a Princeton lad (Edward Clements) whose Park Ave. father has disowned him, at the behest of a wicked stepmother — who is drafted into a group of revelers as a much-needed escort. His relationship with the most vulnerable of the girls (Carolyn Farina) — sweet and warm and a wallflower — provides the plot. Farina gives a wonderful performance, as does Clements; both are first-time actors, as are most of the principals.
Stillman made the film, on location in New York for $225,000, which in 1990 was a minimal amount. (While the comparison might be meaningless, "Ghost" — which beat out Stillman in that year's best screenplay race — had a budget of $22,000,000.) "Metropolitan" has heart, and wit, plus charm and warm laughter. And a sense of social malaise which speaks knowingly and ruefully of the end of a world.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)