After a 13-year absence, writer-director Whit Stillman returns with his signature brand of prolix, observational humor in "Damsels in Distress," a movie sure to reward the filmmaker's most die-hard fans, while doing little to quiet critics who found his work self-conscious to the point of insufferability.
Long before artists such as Wes Anderson and Zooey Deschanel made the word "twee" a zeitgeisty put-down, Stillman was refining the style in "Metropolitan," "Barcelona" and "The Last Days of Disco" rarified, urbane and unapologetically literate chamber pieces that chronicled the lives of young people whose journeys of self- discovery took place amid the artifacts and rituals of WASP culture and old money.
That same air of unacknowledged privilege suffuses "Damsels in Distress," in which Sacramento native Greta Gerwig stars as Violet, a junior at an East Coast liberal arts college called Seven Oaks, where she and a florally named band of cohorts wage a genteel war against all that is rude, crude, coarse or otherwise aesthetically suspect. (During one early scene, one of the young women goes into "nasal shock" after passing an odorous group of skate punks.)
When a new girl named Lily (Analeigh Tipton, from El Dorado Hills) arrives on campus, Violet and her friends pounce, scooping her up and bringing her along on their campaign to prevent student suicide, stamp out the whiny school newspaper and, in Violet's case, aid in her ambition to start a national dance craze.
It's all very daffy and sweet- natured, as long as you can go along with Stillman in making a joke of suicide; still, as the Woody Allen-esque opening credits remind us, there's a fine line between a fantastical comedy of manners (à la "Midnight in Paris") and a comedy that's merely mannered.
"Damsels in Distress" too often falls into the latter category, as Stillman leads viewers on a madcap, unevenly convincing trip through a looking glass beyond which young people don't text, peck at laptops or know what earbuds are, but who break into a tap dance number or deliver learned disquisitions on Catharism.
Gerwig ("Hannah Takes the Stairs," "Greenberg") proves once again that she's an incandescent screen presence, even if she has yet to find a movie equal to her particular, quirky brand of forthrightness and fey charm.
As a character who finds clichés "a stunning treasure-trove of human wisdom and knowledge," Violet never takes on the complexity that would make her more than merely vapid and grating; what's more, with her constant use of words such as "moron" and "retard," her longing for finer sensibilities rings cruelly hollow.
Finally, "Damsels in Distress" resembles the production number it concludes with refreshing and earnest at first blush, but not executed with enough substance or genuine élan to make it stick. Even Violet would no doubt quibble, though she'd just as surely give Stillman points for trying.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Adam Brody, Hugo Becker, Ryan Metcalf, BillyMagnussen, Aubrey Plaza.
Writer-director: Whit Stillman
Rated PG-13 (Contains mature thematic content, including some sexual material)