in Criterion Month

Metropolitan (1990)

As John eluded to in his hot take, filmmakers like Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, and Steven Soderbergh seized on technological advances in the late Eighties and showed that you could make a movie on a shoestring budget. They helped pave the way for the indie explosion of the Nineties and, more importantly for this post, inspired Whit Stillman to give up his illustration company, sell his apartment, and go all in on making a personal comedy about wealthy young socialites. The result was Metropolitan, a film that feels equal parts frivolous and vital and serves as a reminder that there was a time that we could feel sympathy for the rich.

Set “not too long ago,” Metropolitan begins near Christmas in Manhattan as the debutante ball season is in full swing. A misunderstanding about a cab leads Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) to an after-party with the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack,” a group of other college-aged bourgeoisie who always gather in the apartment of Sally Fowler post-ball. There he’s taken under the wing of Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman), the most boisterous and extroverted member of the group. Nick helps Tom meet the others, including Audrey (Carolyn Farina), a shy Jane Austen fan, and Charlie (Taylor Nichols), a talkative wannabe intellectual.

Tom bristles against the group at first, claiming to be opposed to their lifestyle and actually a socialist. He refuses to share a cab home that night, saying he prefers to walk, but the others follow him and realize he doesn’t live in the Upper East Side like they all do. We find out Tom’s tuxedo is a rental and he lives in a much more humble apartment than Sally Fowler. Nonetheless, when Audrey asks him to be her escort, Tom cannot resist an opportunity to return to this decadent world.

Audrey’s attraction to Tom is not immediately returned, he still has romantic energy focused on his ex, Serena (Ellia Thompson), a mutual acquaintance of the rat pack. Serena is now dating Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), a jerk with a ponytail who is apparently a duke and, according to Nick, a real despicable guy. To complicate matters even further, Charlie has feelings for Audrey that he’s been afraid to tell her about. And so the dance begins.

As time goes on, we begin to find out that Tom, the self-professed socialist, is maybe not as different as he’d like to believe. He is not experiencing some Tale of Two Cities narrative, Tom comes from money too, it’s just his father has divorced his mother and run off with a new wife. When Tom borrows money from his mom to buy a used tuxedo, he’s deeply apologetic about the expense, but she is just like, “it’s fine, it’s not that much.” So, just how much of the time is Tom fronting? What’s up with this dude?

That’s the best I can do to make it seem like this movie has stakes, the reality is it’s not really about much. Mostly it’s a bunch of scenes of these pretentious young adults having conversations about their lots in life with varying levels of self-awareness. There is a sense among the group that debutante society as a whole is on the verge of disappearing and they have to reckon with the reality that the world they’re growing up into probably won’t exist for much longer. Even that sounds heavier than Metropolitan actually is, while it is occasionally moving, the majority of this experience is wittily amusing.

These people are exactly the type that could potentially end up in a Grey Gardens situation if everything goes wrong for them. They are insanely out-of-touch with the world outside of their bubble, with their main cultural touchstones being respectable literature. But I can’t hate them for being themselves. Perhaps the genius of Metropolitan is the inclusion of Rick, who is a dick. Having just one trashy, smug, abusive asshole present makes everyone else seem so much better. Which is why, in conclusion, we must impeach the president.