Movie Review: “Damsels,” Gerwig and Whit Stillman team for a “comeback”

2half-starOne doesn’t realize one has missed the airless irony of Whit Stillman until one sees Stillman’s first feature film in 13 years.

The dry martini chronicler of young, monied ennui, Stillman captured the outliers of a disaffected generation with his observant, mildly romantic comedies “Metropolitan” and “Barcelona.” “Damsels in Distress,” his newest, travels to college where he turns his wicked wit on the kids who turn into someone they’re not, poseurs, the minute they’re away at school.

The film and its characters are so out of their time that it seems to take its inspiration from Jane Austen’s Emma and Sandy Wilson’s 1950s musical “The Boy Friend.” It’s like a Woody Allen college comedy financed in Bollywood. It’s chaste, chatty ever-so-clever, if all somewhat pointless and bloodless.

Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is new to Seven Oaks University. Not to worry, the ever-helpful Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her posse will take the new girl in. The English Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and needy Heather (Carrie MacLemore) are more than happy to enlist Lily in their Suicide Prevention Center volunteer work — their counseling includes coffee, donuts and tap dancing — and their overarching passion project — “a form of youth outreach” is how Violet sells it. They’re about bettering their peers, dating boys who are “frankly inferior,” because “intelligence is not an immutable barrier,” passing out soap to the dorm whose residents frankly need it. That sort of thing.

“They’re morons,” Lily protests.”

“Well, not medically.”

Over the course of an academic year, Lily experiences the ditziness of her new pals and the phoniness of one and all in Seven Oaks, where the campus paper is called “The Daily Complainer,” where suicide means taking a leap…off a the balcony of a two-storey dorm (thus, only jumping about 1.5 storeys), where the school pooh poohs “The Greek System,” but has fraternity-like dwellings based on the Roman alphabet instead.

Stillman, who just turned 60, plainly hasn’t any more of a clue about college life than Woody Allen does. The arch situations, odd, out-of-their-time characters (a dance fanatic goes by the name “Freak Astaire”) and rounded locutions of the damsels’ speech give the whole affair a quaint, period piece quality, rather like John Waters’ “Cry Baby” and “Hairspray.”

But Stillman hasn’t lost his ear for withering dialogue.

“Past is gone. Might as well romanticize it.”

Gerwig, of “Greenberg,” “Arthur” and “No Strings Attached,” has her most button-down character ever in Violet, and Stillman gives her a delicious naiveté to play. Lily, incredulous at the idiocy of some of what she sees going on, asks the ill-informed know-it-all Violet what the plural of “doufas” (Stillman’s spelling, not mine) is. “Doufi?”

“You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this,” Lily wonders.

“I’ve had to,” Violet admits.

There are gullible coeds, insipid frat boys, not-quite-romances (Adam Brody plays another poseur) and Stillman tries to wrap it all up with a “dance craze” musical number that could have charmed Frankie and Annette, 50 years ago.

“Damsels in Distress” doesn’t work. But the ways it doesn’t work make fans happy that at least Whit Stillman is trying to work again.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content including some sexual material

Cast: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Adam Brody, Carrie MacLemore, Ryan Metcalf

Credits: Written and directed by Whit Stillman. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:38

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