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MOVIE REVIEW : Class Stuggles of the Upper Strata in 'Metropolitan'

August 10, 1990|SHEILA BENSON | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Cozying up to "Metropolitan" (Cineplex Beverly Center, AMC Century 14) becomes a real test of toleration: how compassionate are you about the very rich and rather dim? Not at all? Then this romantic comedy of manners, set during a single New York Christmas season of debutante balls and after-parties, may set your teeth grinding.

However, if you bear in mind that its debuting writer-director-producer, Whit Stillman intended "Metropolitan" as very gentle irony, you're already ahead. After all, he can't be too stuffy; he subtitled his slice-of-high-life "Doomed. Bourgeois. In Love." And as it turns out, Stillman's gift for quiet, scrupulous observation grows on you.

"Metropolitan" is set sometime in the recent past and it is unabashedly autobiographical; roughly 15 years ago Stillman was his outsider-protagonist Tom Townsend locked priggishly in a love-hate relationship with the UHB. UHB? Ah, that's the title one of the group drawlingly confers on his "doomed" peers: the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie; "More sociologically precise than preppie."

Tom (Edward Clements), in from Princeton for Christmas vacation, thinks himself in moral opposition to every UHB born. He announces, frequently, that he follows Charles Fourier, the 19th-Century social reformer whose theories were tried out by Brooke Farm. It's envy, of course. Tom's an insider tossed outside by the two dreaded words "divorce" and "stepmother."

The art directors of "Metropolitan," who seem to have gotten everything exactly right, have the Townsend's apartment down pat: comfortable, faintly shabby, brave; a few "good" pieces from the divorce, probably his mother's before the marriage. It reeks of reduced circumstances and it--and his mother, who no longer has her son's illusions about when his father is going to call them--is terribly touching.

Red-headed Tom is swept into the Sally Fowler Rat Pack by the simple accident of sharing a cab with this inner circle of debs and their escorts. Since he seems to be one of them, they invite him up to Sally's for a ritual of post-party gossip and deeply earnest conversation about art ("the Surrealists were just a bunch of social climbers") or the bleak future of their class. And in a ball season where there is a severe shortage of acceptable escorts, Tom is suddenly penciled in as Available. It will become the erosion of his every principle.

It takes a while to sort the Pack out, but shiny-haired Audrey Rouget (the delightful Carolyn Farina) is clearly its overlooked treasure. Director Stillman performs a deadpan introduction to Audrey, in tears over a crack her (unseen) little brother has made about an (unnamed) part of her anatomy. Audrey reads, she thinks, she feels--acutely. It does rather set her apart from most of Sally's set. Tom reads too, but reviews , not the books themselves. Not even an admission like that dims Audrey's growing love for him.

The caustic Nick Smith (Christopher Eigerman), is the Pack's leader. If he's more understanding than the rest about Tom's peculiarities--public transportation, a light raincoat instead of a warm topcoat, a rented tux--it may come from their shared experience as kids with divorced, remarried fathers. Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), with his wire glasses and impacted admiration of Audrey, is the group's moralist; Cynthia McLean (Isabel Gillies) is its sexual adventurer and the somnolent Fred Neff (Bryan Leder) seems to have mastered middle-age before he's turned 24.

Outside the Pack but crucial to it and the story are the season's glamour girl, Serena Slocum (Elizabeth Thompson), to whom Tom wrote impassioned letters in boarding school and international jet-setter Rick von Sloneker (Will Kempe), who finds using his title "baron" an unnecessary bore. (Unfortunately, in a role that needs blase Eurostyle charisma, Kempe manages only the blase.)

Filmmaker Stillman is a pointillist, working in the tiniest, most meticulous degrees. If he seems at times as controlled and distanced as his own UHBs, his impulsive, romantic ending betrays him. Stillman understands caste, class and deportment as perfectly as Audrey's idol, Jane Austen and by the time he's through, so do we.

'METROPOLITAN'

A New Line Cinema release of a Westerly Films presentation. Writer, producer, director Whit Stillman. Camera John Thomas. Editor Christopher Tellefsen. Music Mark Suozzo, original music Tom Judson. Costumes Mary Jane Fort. Line producer Brian Greenbaum. Co-producer Peter Wentworth. Sound Antonio Arroyo. With Carolyn Farina, Edward Clements, Christopher Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, Allison Rutledge-Parisi, Dylan Hundley, Isabel Gillies, Bryan Leder, Will Kempe, Elizabeth Thompson.Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (Extremely mild sexual reference)

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