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'Damsels in Distress' Blu-ray review: Stillman Returns to Reinvent the College Comedy

'Damsels in Distress' Blu-ray review: Stillman Returns to Reinvent the College Comedy

Whit Stillman of “Metropolitan” fame waited more than a decade to uncork the droll dialogue heard in “Damsels in Distress.” He hasn’t made a movie since 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco,” and you can tell he was holding plenty in.

“Damsels,” just released on Blu-ray and DVD, bears the auteur’s cerebral stamp. Stillman’s characters rarely speak the way most folks do. Instead, it’s a heady brew of high-brow chatter, the kind you overhear at a cocktail party but feel too intimidated to join in.

With “Damsels,” that talent isn’t accompanied by a strong story or character arcs. In fact, the film meanders from one frothy set piece to the next, occasionally stopping for a musical number or an ode to the ultimate college ritual, the toga party.

It’s a nitrous-fueled affair missing a working engine.

Greta Gerwig stars as Violet, the leader of her university’s suicide prevention team. She’s a parody of the kind, caring, considerate types who think they can heal the planet with noble intentions and a reassuring hug.

If all else fails, she signs them up for tap lessons or offers them a hotel soap sample to sniff.

Violet’s clique includes Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and the new girl, Lilly (Analeigh Tipton), who smartly cuts through Violet’s affectations. Together, Violet’s non-Mean Girls army battle the unctuous editor of the university newspaper and relationships gone sour.

And that’s more or less it.

Stillman has grand fun mocking college stereotypes – the jocks here are so dumb they can’t differentiate colors. Violet’s crew, in turn, lacks any self-awareness, but gosh darn it they mean well.

“Damsels in Distress” introduces some male characters for our heroines to embrace, question, reject and, perhaps, team up for a new dance sensation. Adam Brody wrestles but eventually is pinned by a poorly sketched fellow named Charlie … or is it Fred? Yes, Stillman is having a ball inverting college tropes as he sees fit.

Gerwig excels at appearing dazed but cognizant with her previous characters, and here that quality gives Violet a sympathetic veneer she sorely needs.

“Damsels in Distress” is rarely dull, frequently vibrant in both verbiage and set design and doesn’t have a mean bone in its body. It’s a college comedy without a final exam, or even a mid-term.

The Blu-ray extras include commentary with Stillman and the film’s cast as well as a Q&A, deleted scenes, outtakes and a “behind the scenes” featurette.

“He’s so smart that I don’t get it sometimes,” actor Billy Magnussen (the film’s lunkheaded Thor) says of Stillman, whose working style is detailed in remarkably crisp fashion through cast interviews.

We also learn Gerwig was initially tapped to play Lilly, not Violet. 

“I felt ‘off’ about it,” Gerwig says, saying she envisioned the negative reviews that would accompany her performance before she changed gears and tried Violet on for size.


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