The strange obsessions and nuances of the rich, especially New York rich, have been hit on more times than that cute brunette at the end of the bar with a tattoo on her tailbone and freshly pierced tongue. Of course, Jean Renoir (Rules of the Game) and George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story) have rendered it with complete command, but those are the old rich. There is a strict difference between the bizarre, scary privileges of the older rich and the snotty, surreal privileges of the young rich. It's this world that Whit Stillman (Barcelona), a phantom of a director, explores in Metropolitan, and no, there are no robots to be seen.
On a cold, beautiful, New York winter night, Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) walks down a Manhattan street in a raincoat. By accident, he bumps into a pack of NY upper-crust college student by trying to get the same cab they were going for (where would film be without this coincidental bump-in?). The group seems to be led by the charming and overly cynical Nick Smith (Christopher Eigeman), but in fact the group is an entity, in and of itself. By assuming he's for another Manhattan socialite, the group accepts Tom as one of their own, connected only by a girl he dated through letters, Serena Slocum (Elizabeth Thomas). Nick pontificates on their privileged lives and the evil Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe) while Tom ignores the obvious crush of Audrey (Carolyn Farina), who seems to be the group's only level-headed girl. Adding to this, Audrey is coyly pursued by Charlie (Taylor Nichols), the group's obvious book-smart member who hates that Tom is as smart as him yet seems not to boast about it so much. We follow the film through winter break as the group attends several different social events, which include a verbal stand-off between Rick and Nick and Tom's slow drift from Serena to Audrey.
Like Noah Baumbach, Stillman has talent at wit and conversation and has unbelievable ability allowing the dialogue to fill in a lot of the plot, letting the actors handle the characters' details, flaws, and reversals with expert skill. We first are so enamored by the charm and bombastic wit of Nick that we don't notice all his flaws that slowly emerge as his faux-liberal tendencies slip away. It's the same with both Tom and Charlie; we want to like these characters so much at first until we see the cruelty that lies under them. The only character that stays completely likable is Audrey. Those who cheered on BBC's The Office for its subtlety for romantic yearning will be dazzled to see how Stillman, both as director and writer, handles the relationship among Tom, Audrey, and Charlie. There are no long speeches or confessions of feelings here. Charlie tells a friend about his crush in mid-conversation, but not with any overt emotions; it's more like he's asking for another beer. All the yearning, love and lust is done in looks, gestures and long silences. It's a rare kind of enchantment.
That Stillman never really cashed in on the credit and massive promise that Metropolitan earned him fits seamlessly for a director and writer who seemed to make films based solely on dialogue, acting and camera (see the hypnotic camera work in Last Days of Disco, still his most recent film, made in 1998). He's more than overdue for a comeback since so many films lately follow his stride of stringing together plot with extremely witty and lengthy bouts of dialogue. As it lies, however, Stillman's film still has the humor, warmth, and satirical edge to make it a tragically forgotten classic.