Dave's Rating:

4.0

The Official Preppy Handbook, 2012 Edition.

The question: "What is a Whit Stillman?"

The answer: He's that guy from the 1990s who made three small, unusually droll comedies about preppies and their strange ways. Metropolitan (1989), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), were movies about young debutantes, expatriate professionals and proto-yuppies navigating their way through worlds that both valued and questioned their status. They were affectionate films that were in love with their own elitism even while everything about them could be read as goofy critique. Stillman is overqualified for this job, by the way. His godfather was E. Digby Baltzell, the sociologist who more or less invented the term "WASP." His father was assistant secretary of commerce under John F. Kennedy. After Last Days of Disco, he took himself to Paris for about ten years and hasn't made a movie since its release. For the record, all of the above makes him the single preppiest human being in the galaxy who hasn't already written a tongue-in-cheek, how-to book on the subject.

Into this garden of privilege Stillman drops four collegiate flowers: Violet (Greta Gerwig) Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) who, without giving up any information to her three new insta-friends, is determined by the group to have either failed or been very unhappy with her previous surroundings. This spurs the trio into action and they induct her into their highly idiosyncratic social group, one where gung-ho volunteerism at the campus's apparently much-in-need "suicide center" (a series of students fail to end it all by hurling themselves from the second floor of one of the campus's buildings) involves tap dance therapy and homemade cardboard signs that say things like, "COME ON, IT'S NOT THAT BAD!"

The women are also involved with one of the more pitiable campus fraternities, chastely seeking to improve the self-esteem of the group's designated bunch of socially, sexually and intellectually inferior men, one of whom doesn't yet know the names of the colors. Violet is the busiest of the bunch, simultaneously on the trail of the perfect suicide-prevention fragrance and consumed with the idea of creating an international dance craze. Nobody studies (except for the colors-deficient guy, who talks a lot about "hitting the books") but the philosophical discussions never cease and the high-speed self (and others) improvement never loses momentum. "We're all flawed," reasons Violet, who is never without advice for anyone she meets. "Must that render us mute to the flaws of others?"

And okay, yes, none of this makes much sense. Except that it kind of does.

Connecting this mess of non-stories is a witty, extremely specific satire about the simultaneous absurdity and cozy happiness (and therefore, weird greatness) of group-think. Knuckleheaded fraternities, tightly-knit circles of self-made superwomen, copycat waves of suicidal depressives, junior-Junior-League-level altruism, sex cults or nation-sweeping dance trends all work together here to mirror the social isolationism of the well-off and well-read and to poke at a kind youthful smartypants propensity for flamboyant eccentricity.

And because no other contemporary filmmaker chooses to hang out with these loveably snobbish, modestly attired people, we're lucky that Stillman still finds them worth explaining to the world. No, it's not about you or me or anyone you probably know. But neither are movies about space aliens.

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