Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco is less about the nightclub scene in 1980s Manhattan and more about the people that inhabited the clubs and locales. It isn’t so much about the end of an era as it is an exercise in pretentiousness and posturing seemingly for the sake of it.
The Last Days of Disco is another in a sort of unofficial series of films by Stillman, with the first two being Metropolitan and Barcelona. In those two pictures, as with Disco, Stillman explores the lifestyles of what he calls the “doomed Bourgeois” as they fall in and out of love with each other and with their lives. The stories generally center on a group of recent college or law school graduates.
Disco is no different, with Stillman unfolding a meandering and chatty tale about Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chloë Sevigny). They are two recent Ivy League college grads and work at the same publishing house, pining for a better line of work with more pay. Alice and Charlotte are friends by convenience more than anything else, having not really liked each other in school. They eventually gravitated to one another thanks in large part to working in the same place and become partners in partying.
Alice and Charlotte frequent a Studio 54-ish nightclub during the dying days of the disco tradition. Alice is the smart one with good moral quality (apparently), while Charlotte tends to have a lot of trouble with impulse control as she frequently puts down her “friend” and says whatever’s on her mind.
The club remains the central meeting point of The Last Days of Disco, as other characters float in and out of the mix complete with necessary pretentious qualities. There’s Des (Chris Eigeman), one of the club’s managers, Des’s friend Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), Alice’s “love interest” Josh (Matt Keeslar), and the environmental lawyer Tom (Robert Sean Leonard).
Keeping track of all the fresh-faced young men in The Last Days of Disco can be problematic for those new to Stillman's chatty arrangements, as they tend to melt together into various diatribes about changing times, whether or not they’re actually yuppies, the meaning behind women’s breasts, or how a Shakespearean quote should best be interpreted.
Stillman’s script certainly works to provide some interesting moments as we watch this group of people conduct the business of their lives through various encounters and conversations, but The Last Days of Disco fails to really get off the ground in any meaningful way. One feels like an observer of a group of people acting smart for the sake of it, using twisting and turning phrases to exemplify concepts that they barely understand and barely actually feel.
Stillman’s films are notorious for their examination of social structure, but nothing feels clean or legitimate about this run-through. While some relationships contain interesting components, such as Charlotte’s social dominance and bullying of Alice, the script simply comes across as too forced and the scenes lack natural flow.
In terms of performances, Beckinsale is the standout. Her character provides the most entertainment as she chews apart Sevigny’s Alice with a lack of self-control. She’s bitchy and whiny in all the right places, looking great as she carelessly tosses out a few lines about Alice’s possible VD.
The feel of the film, beyond the dialogue and characters, rings true to the era. Stillman ably creates his “end of an era” using a disco soundtrack that includes some Diana Ross, O’Jays and Chic.
The original DVD release of The Last Days of Disco eventually went out of print, leaving the door wide open for Criterion to release the picture. As with most presentations from the Criterion Collection, the movie looks and sounds fantastic. The interiors of the club look good and the picture quality is clean and crisp.
There are a few special features included, although it’s hard to spot anything essential or special in the package. An audio commentary accompanies the movie and features Stillman, Sevigny and Chris Eigeman. There are also four deleted scenes and an audio recording of Stillman reading from his book The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards.
A featurette reveals little beyond basic plot points and isn’t particularly insightful and an essay by David Schickler is included in the packaging.
Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco feels alternatively bloated and hollow. The characters are arrogant and pretentious, ringing false consistently throughout the picture. While the Criterion presentation is nice enough, the movie itself leaves a lot to be desired.