The Story: A lovelorn pseudo-intellectual, whose family lost their money to divorce, gets sucked into a world of debutante balls he can ill-afford to attend, where everybody is a little too sophisticated for their own good.
How it Came to be Underrated: Stillman developed a small cult following, but his films never found as much of an audience as they deserved.
Why It’s Great:
- Woody Allen loves to savage New York’s urbane elites, but his critique is undercut by the sneaking suspicion that he still wants to prove that he can be one of them. Stillman’s droll, inane banter is effortlessly witty, but he also has a keen eye for the fragile naïveté that the spakling conversation fails to hide. The world is rarified, but the emotions will be recognizable to anyone who’s seen a group of friends drift apart.
- The storytelling is honest. There are no good guys or bad guys, and the story complications aren’t based on misunderstandings. Stillman knows that there’s both drama and comedy to be mined from the natural distances that exist between well-intentioned people.
- In the end, the snobbiest jerk (Eigeman) turns out to be pretty wise about almost everything, while the supposedly sensitive thinking-man (Clements) slowly comes to see himself as a bit of a boob. As the former blithely opines to the latter: “There’s something a little bit arrogant about going around worrying about the less fortunate. Are the ‘more fortunate’ really so terrific?”
- The key bit comes when one of them is dismissing utopianism: “Brook Farm ceased to exist. Ceasing to exist is failure. That’s pretty definitive.” Clements is about to agree, but then he points out, “Everybody ceases to exist. Does that mean everyone’s a failure?” That becomes the unanswered question hanging over the movie. Finally, an older, wiser ex-preppy, encountering the younger generation’s fatalism, gives the final answer: “Doomed? No, that would be easier. We simply fail without being doomed.”
Underrated Compared To: I wish Stillman’s name had the power to command funding today strictly based on his track record, in the way that names like Jarmusch or Solondz can.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Stillman has gone on to make only two more movies so far, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, with many of the same actors, both of which are also pretty great.
How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd and available to watch instantly, though that version seemed slightly squeezed.