Cover illustration by Pierre Le-Tan for the Criterion Collection DVD.
“Metropolitan,” Whit Stillman’s beguiling Upper East Side comedy of manners, is classic in more ways than one. But since it became an indie sleeper hit upon its 1990 release, it has never been considered a holiday perennial. This despite its classic New York look (aside from a few giveaways, like the taxi roof ads, this could be mid-century Gotham) and the fact that the events of the film take place over the course of a week where Christmas falls right in the middle. The trees and the stores are decked out and the film starts with a snippet of holiday music, before slipping into some self-consciously (yes) classic jazz. Yet the event that is December 25th is barely mentioned by the characters and the season is more like a seductively twinkling backdrop. Still, the setting and Stillman’s unshowy compassion for his leads makes this a nice alternative viewing at this time of year, especially if you’re looking for a break from the yearly repeats of Scrooge and the Grinch.
The story concerns a group of young and wellborn Manhattanites, most of whom seem to be home on the winter vacation of their freshman year at Ivy League colleges. Stillman’s stand-in would be the less well-of Tom Townsend, a red-headed Princeton newbie first seen leaving a posh hotel alone after a society dance and who is mistaken as a competitor for the same cab with a group his own age. This mixed group of friends is the self-named “Sally Fowler Rat Pack” (SFRP) and before you can say “after party” Tom has fallen in with them, finding himself in the spacious parlor of her family’s Park Ave. penthouse. What follows is the first of the many hyper-intellectual and often catty group conversations which are “Metropolitan’s” main claim to fame.
The Sally Fowler Rat Pack convenes.
Here, the sophistication goes way deeper than the surface appearance of tuxedos, evening gowns and a parlor filled with old-money furniture. An almost ridiculously erudite skull session is underway as outsider Tom reveals a left-leaning world view and admits to being a “committed socialist” as the talk quickly turns to French philosopher Fourier, of whom he is a fan. Despite some doubts about this, the group decide that Tom is a “basically good person,” a high form of praise with this crowd.
The group comes into focus. The bespectacled Charlie is a self-appointed defender of the positive values of the old WASP aristocracy, even though he (like some of the others) recognizes its decline. The bookish and wispy Audrey has a sharp intellect and a love of Jane Austen; she soon develops a crush on Tom, to Charlie’s chagrin. She stands in sharp relief with Jane, the tall and confident brunette as well as with the fair-haired Sally Fowler and Cynthia, who would probably be mean girls if they weren’t so well-bred.
Jane (Allison Rutledge-Parisi), Nick (Christopher Eigeman) and Sally (Dylan Handley)
The real standout, however, is the handsome, dimpled and (seemingly) impertinent Nick. Unabashed about his privileged status and easily seen as rude, Nick (as brilliantly portrayed by Chris Eigeman) is the de facto leader and conscience of the SFRP. Nick breaks down Tom’s resistance about returning the following night, and senses Tom’s insecurity about the cost of his rented tuxedo and his lack of an overcoat (though his raincoat “has a lining” as he is obliged to explain to the others). These scenes between Nick and Tom (played by Edward Clements) are a highlight of the film. The cajoling may start out because there is a “severe escort shortage” at the start of debutante week, but turns into something more. With the group clued in to Audrey’s feelings, Nick informs him that he has made a “big impression” on the girls and that he should drop his moralistic objections to high society and enjoy the amenities. Check out this well-played scene between Eigeman and Clements.
Nick and Tom parry in the vestibule in my favorite scene from “Metropolitan.” Come for the debs, stay for the “hot, nutritious meals”
The famous good advice to authors to “write what you know” is assiduously followed her by the writer-director. Stillman based his Oscar-nominated script on a similar experience he had on his first Christmas back from his own freshman year at Harvard in 1969. This rarefied upper-class milieu of society balls and formal fashions is not the most readily sympathetic subject matter but Stillman owns it with panache. He deliberately amped-up the cultivated banter for comic effect and takes semi-satirical delight in arcane details. Charlie (played by Taylor Nichols) name-drops Averell Harriman and earnestly comes up with a more accurate acronym for the WASPs, namely the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie (UHB, or “The Ubbs” as Nick would have it) while Audrey would defend the old-fashioned virtues of Austen to the ends of the earth. Oblivious to her affections, Tom still pines for Serena, his ravishing but flighty ex-girlfriend who he hasn’t seen since “Yale game weekend.” Nick details at novelistic length the alleged sex crimes of his arch-nemesis, the conceited Rick von Sloneker, an actual baron. It keeps “Metropolitan” likably light on its feet even as the characters, suspecting that this is last real debutante season, see their way of life fading.
A photo from a recent reunion of the “Metropolitan cast and director Whit stillman (far right).
“Metropolitan” can’t help but suffer a little when Nick departs the scene with about a third of it left to play out. (Chris Eigeman would delightfully reprise this character type in two later Stillman films, 1994’s “Barcelona” and 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco”). Shortly after a confrontation with the young baron goes awry, Nick catches his train upstate to his dad’s place, where he’s sure his evil stepmother has plans to murder him. In case he doesn’t return, Nick makes Tom and Charlie promise to uphold the tradition of the UHBs. Although it would have sounded corny, he could have suggested they uphold the principles of the “basically good” people, especially in light of the Rick von Sloneker’s of the world. The UHBs certainly had their flaws but their straight-laced civic-mindedness and charitable tendencies stand tall in contrast to what we get with the infamous 1% of today’s economic upper strata. Nick describes von Sleneker as “tall, rich, good looking, stupid, dishonest, insolent and possibly psychotic.” Take out the “good looking” part and it sounds suspiciously like the current occupant of the White House. Who knew this would combination would be so “irresistible” to so many voters. Nick’s righteous indignation at the baron (also the name of Trump’s youngest son), misunderstood by many other characters, sounds impeccably prophetic today.
Audrey and Tom look to better days. Happy Holidays, everyone!