Based on a couple of shorts he had already produced around the eponymous late-70’s Manhattan night-spot, Studio 54, in 1998, Miramax gave writer/director Mark Christopher the go-ahead to produce a full-length feature that’s set around a fictional New Jersey innocent (Ryan Phillippe) coming of age amongst all the loveless sex, celebrity worship, and casual drug use that defined the disco era and defied the Carter malaise.
It’s fairly obvious that what everyone was going for was another kick at the “Boogie Nights” (1997) cat, with Phillippe in the Mark Wahlberg role and a very good Mike Myers as Studio 54 impresario Steve Rubell, whose place in the story is similar to the libertine patriarch Burt Reynolds made so iconic just a year earlier. Unfortunately, with the casting of Phillippe, one of the least sympathetic actors to ever land a lead role, the story falls far short right off the bat.
But the screenplay itself is also flawed. Subplots involving Salma Hayek and Breckin Meyer as a married couple working at the club in order to fulfill their own dreams of stardom as they attempt to sidestep extra-marital temptations, feels less than half-baked. The romantic subplot involving Neve Campbell is even worse. In fact, the entire production feels as though it went through post-production hell where a lot of footage ended up being cut and/or reshot.
The biggest problem, though, is the overall tone. “Boogie Nights” took you into a seedy world, but showed you the humanity and fractured family behind it. And once that story came to a close, despite the sleaziness of the porn business, you did feel that an era had been lost even though so many were lost in it. Judging by its closing scene, “54” wants to evoke a similar wistfulness, but nothing about what comes before allows that moment to pay off.
For starters, when we’re first introduced to Studio 54, it’s through the eyes of Phillippe’s character and on the night of Truman Capote’s birthday. The club celebrates the occasion by having two pre-pubescent boys dressed like cupids lowered like bait from the ceiling. But watching the aged Capote lust after a couple of kids, gives off a vibe that goes well beyond moral acceptance — well beyond the idea of consenting adults.
Secondly, the film’s most affecting scenes come early when Phillippe is at home with his working class family. You really feel for Phillippe’s workaday old man as he sips a can of Schlitz and has his heart broken by an ungrateful son who thinks that all that matters in life can be found Rubell’s never-ending party. As the story rolls on and Phillippe’s character engages in every hollow pleasure imaginable, you keep hoping he’ll figure out what matters and go back home to his father. But the film isn’t about that.
If you remember, in “Boogie Nights,” our protagonist had no real family and so he found an imperfect but loving one in California’s porn valley. In “54,” we’re introduced to a young man who rejects a family very similar to our own, and yet, in the end, I guess we’re supposed to mourn the loss of a group of people who wasted the wonderful gift of a free spirit wallowing in decadence.
This is a film as hollow as its subject.
“54” is new to Blu-ray and available at Amazon.com.