A group of upper-class Manhattan youths socialize in Metropolitan.
It takes a bold man to craft a film around a group of really snotty, spoiled teenage Manhattanites, but Whit Stillman did just that with 1990's Metropolitan. He judges these characters without coming across as too judgmental, crafts them in a way that they deserve our scorn and sympathy simultaneously. It's a tricky line to walk, and on the whole, Stillman emerges unscathed. But this isn't the kind of film that's going to wrap you up tight and kiss you goodnight—unless you are one of these bridge-playing, tuxedo-wearing, scotch-swilling preppies, in which case you'll probably feel right at home.
It's debutante season on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and the "Sally Fowler Rat Pack" (named after the young woman whose apartment is the group's most frequented hangout) is set to meet for the first time this year for socialization and polite debate. Almost accidentally, Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), a young man of much more meager means than the rest of the gang, joins them and really shakes up the discussion. Tom deplores gatherings like this, and says he only attended to be polite and to see if his preconceived notions were true. He declines an invitation to the group's next get-together, but has a change of heart when he learns one of the young women, Audrey (Carolyn Farina), is quite interested in him. He's also taken under the wing of Nick (Christopher Eigeman), one of the group's most outspoken members. Soon, Tom is a card-carrying member of the SFRP, which later redefines itself as the "urban haute bourgeoisie" or UHB. They debate the merits of French socialism and Jane Austen, and in the process, they fight, separate, and ultimately, learn a few important lessons about friendship and identity.
Despite being not quite as prattish as his new group of companions, Tom remains a very distant protagonist. He leads us through this bizarre, almost antiquated world—and we also get a glimpse of what real life looks like for him—but we never develop much of a bond with him. This is no doubt Stillman's intention, but it also makes it a little hard for us to view these people with much sincerity. Audrey is probably the most relatable character present, but she too embraces this chilly lifestyle, making true sympathy almost impossible.
But something happens about two-thirds of the way through Metropolitan that changes a few of these characters in a profound way. It all connects to two outlying members of their social circle—the incredibly named Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe) and Serena Slocum (Elizabeth Thompson). The former is a slimy playboy, the latter a man-eater in every sense of the word. The bonds of the SFRP are stretched almost to the limit by these two individuals, and not necessarily in the ways you might expect. Films like this often inject conflict that's of a sexual nature, but Metropolitan keeps things more civil. What these young men and women go through is a character-building experience, and some of them might not recognize themselves on the other side.
Working with a budget of just $100,000, Stillman's mise en scene is subdued. His lighting is natural, and his sets aren't quite as opulent as you might think, considering the characters' wealth. He's also working with a crew of unknown actors, most of whom perform their roles quite admirably. The standout is perhaps Eigeman, whose Nick is one of the gang's brashest individuals. Clements, again, is a bit more passive than perhaps he ought to be, though both he and Farina sell their repressed feelings of attraction (which may or may not be for each another).
To those unfamiliar with Stillman's sensibilities, I urge a little caution. If you don't appreciate Woody Allen's comedic touch, you'll probably find Metropolitan a bore. The characters, their neuroticism, and their sense of entitlement is very much reminiscent of Allen. The only difference is that they're younger and more well off than an Annie Hall or an Alvy Singer. As such, Stillman's film is ultimately one that's more interesting than enjoyable and one that I'm appreciating more upon reflection than I did in the moment.