Mockingbird favorite Whit Stillman’s wonderful debut film, Metropolitan, is a social commentary which continually crosses over, wryly and adroitly, into the domain of religious experience, Law and Gospel, anxiety and trust. It follows a young group of debutantes and their escorts in New York City, those sons and daughters of established wealth whose socio-economic trajectory has, in their twenties, stalled out. They are the natural members of a generation of new, white aristocracy (“Urban Haute Bourgeoisie”, or UHB), waiting in the wings but, as the prodigious intellectual-cum-self-parody Charlie puts it, “Downward social mobility…I think that’s the direction we’re all heading in.”
But for now, they’re mostly just stalling, poised between upward momentum and inertial stillness. In addition to the quite absurd out-loud thinker Charlie; there is Nick (Stillman/Baumbach favorite Chris Eigeman), an obnoxious cynic with deep insight and dry humor; Tom, a well-mannered and well-read intellectual but of “limited resources”, who is magnetized to the deb circuit though he morally opposes it in principle; and Fred, a drunk who’s the closest Stillman comes here to slapstick. On the female side, there’s Audrey, a reserved, good-girl type with a crush on Tom; Jane, a dry-witted realist enamored of Nick’s penchant for critical honesty; Cynthia, a free spirit; and Sally Fowler, a blonde who hosts get-togethers at her apartment during the deb season with the above group, known as the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, or SFRP.
Two disclaimers: first, if I’ve described the female characters mostly in terms of the male ones, then that’s only because Stillman builds a satiric element of male initiative into Metropolitan’s world; second, the prevalence of acronyms in the movie playfully reflects the easy familiarity and determined non-showiness common to all the denizens of the SFRP.
Tom is introduced to the pre-existing world of Sally Fowler apartment gatherings almost by chance, and the charms of this world are so lulling that he almost gives up his Fourierian socialism. Audrey soon develops a crush on him, but Tom’s continuing attachment to his ex-girlfriend, Serena, brings the group into closer contact with an intolerable member of the titled aristocracy: Rick von Sloneker.
Von Sloneker is certainly Stillman’s most memorable villain; although he’s reputedly done terrible things to girls, his real sin, by UHB standards, is trying.
To see von Sloneker’s variance with WASP-y, or UHB-y, values, we first turn to Charlie’s prediction of how the doom of the aristocracy, or “downward social mobility”, will take place:
Take those of our fathers who grew up very well off. Maybe their careers started out well enough. But just when their contemporaries really began accomplishing things, they started quitting, not openly, but in other ways—“rising above” office politics, refusing to compete and risk open failure… where even if they were total failures no one would know it.
One core value of Stillman’s young aristocracy is ‘social grace’, meaning a basic giftedness and natural aptitude for navigating people and society. To people who really value social grace, something like the term ‘networking’, for example, may be an almost intolerable word – to think that forming profitable friendships is something dependent on practice, intention, or effort! Anything one does not do naturally, as a result of proper upbringing and good sense, reeks of artificiality. And so trying too hard must be avoided, because that would be a violation of the basic trust that given one’s social context, one cannot fail to succeed – barring, perhaps, serious addiction or a DUI in the wrong state.
This basic trust in social grace is the world Stillman’s characters inhabit and, for all its faults, it has real charm, to the point that some analogy can be made between this trust and religious trust. Meaning: if one has the basic confidence that all things will be well, regardless of where they are now, there is a simple freedom to say and do almost anything, and that freedom tends to produce wit, humor, and something akin to joy. The person who deliberately tries to earn his future well-being – financial or religious – does violence to grace’s assurance in the first place. Trying implies control, which violates destiny – and destiny alone confers freedom, by taking the weight off the present.
And so we see how it’s so funny and apt that von Sloneker is the villain: he is the ‘douchebag’ who violates coolness by trying to earn it, violates social destiny by being so aggressive, whether that be calling Audrey a prude or punching Nick in the face. And worse, von Sloneker lacks irony: his straightforwardness is unreflectedly self-justifying, un-self-conscious effort to exert his will and communicate something; Nick, who hates him, represents the apogee of the UHB with regard to his self-awareness and cynicism and irony. Regardless of how well or poorly he treats women, Nick must always hate him and discredit him.
And yet, there’s a problem with the ‘ub’: times are changing, or at least they seem to be, and the guarantees of the past don’t seem to apply with the same force to this generation. The inability to try and fail – which is the very characteristic of their culture – is somehow the thing that seems to be paralyzing them. Written in the late eighties, it’s hard to place the exact cultural timeline of why their fathers had an inability to try and fail. To take a simplified guess – they likely weren’t war veterans.
But what matters now is this paralysis and that, amidst the advantages of trust funds and Ivy League degrees, things seem less sure than they were. They may be fine financially, but what about purpose, identity, prestige?
Charlie recognizes the threat of failure better than anyone, and his defense is a strangely passionate fatalism. He just assumes that they’ll fail and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. A man at a bar near the end talks with Charlie, and exposes the absurdity of Charlie’s fatalism: “’Doomed?’ That would make it easier. We just fail without being doomed.”
For Nick, on the other hand, the solution is an irony which Nick deploys against the threat of inertia or ‘downward social mobility.’ He never tries and fails because he never tries, never attempts to say anything sincere, except when that loathsome von Sloneker guy is brought up. Nick’s running social commentary is the film’s most constant voice of cynical truth; but his deconstruction of the other characters’ efforts and motivations, while usually true, is motivated by a need to prove that their effort and earnestness will get them no further than his own cynicism will get him.
And yet Nick, with his perceptiveness, conspires with Audrey (she’s the real architect, according to Stillman), to bring Tom into the group, a young red-headed ideologue. Tom, as a trust-fund kid with a Princeton education, fits well into the group socially, though he’s been financially strapped since his parents’ divorce three years earlier. While Tom isn’t really a ‘triehard’, his earnestness does make the viewer (and more than one of the characters) question why Nick likes him so much. Nick replies that he’s basically a good guy, but apart from that and perhaps a loyalty to Audrey, it’s possible Nick’s attracted to him because Nick’s parents were divorced too.
Divorce shakes their providential sense of well-being, putting Nick and Tom emotionally in touch with the reality which Charlie vocalized. Thus Nick’s defensive irony and Tom’s defensive ideology: they have both fallen, at different times, through the cracks in their providential world; they know ‘downward mobility’ of some sort firsthand. And Nick’s inclusion of Tom in the group is a good deed, whether for him or for Audrey or both – and it’s in earnestness that Stillman finds hope for the quickly-disintegrating SFRP.
Nick reveals Tom’s ideology for the travesty it is, midwifing Tom into a world beyond Fourier. (And yes, I’m trying not to lose sight of the movie’s utter absurdity). Once Tom starts reading Selena’s letters (while Audrey cries – on Christmas day! Hope dawns before ‘orgy week’!), Nick’s role in the movie is drawing to a close, first as the groomer of Tom – since he, the movie’s hero, is starting on the path to ‘redemption’, and second as the film’s sardonic Tiresias – since the prophet of failure can neither predict nor assimilate true romance.
(Okay, so ‘true romance’ is a strong word for a mostly Quixotic quest to save Audrey from that evil von Sloneker’s house in the Hamptons. Wherever Stillman makes a serious point, there’s a stroke of satire lying just behind it. The style matches the content; the movie itself could never be accused of saying anything too serious, and that’s a major part of its charm.)
The great irony of Nick’s and the others’ preoccupation with social grace is that von Sloneker, who seems to be breaking good form by being so damn sincere and effortful, is that he actually exudes effortlessness. His overt machismo and arrogance don’t come from a place of trying to earn his social stature, but rather the opposite. The irony is that von Sloneker actually does possess socio-economic providence, in the sense of a title, which gives him the freedom to not take it all that seriously. Indeed, it is out of the freedom of social grace that he’s willing to try and fail; the SFRP crew hate effort as an offense to grace precisely because their grace is fragile.
And so von Sloneker is the ultimate threat at the movie’s end, when Audrey – the ‘goodie-goodie’ – is out at the Hamptons with him; Charlie and Tom imagine the worst debauchery. The film’s ending is appropriately mild for a comedy of manners: it turns out von Sloneker was more lazy than manipulative, and he’s happy to get rid of the straight-laced Audrey. The other surprise for Tom and Charlie is that women actually do have agency – even (gasp!) the mild-seeming ones like Audrey – and aren’t pawns for the von Slonekers of the world.
But she appreciates the gesture, and the sincerity of Tom’s concern for her wins her over, and provides the movie’s happy ending. Luckily for Tom, true feeling doesn’t mean sap or grand gestures of love; the grand gesture itself is humorously misguided, and they speak with playful obliquity about their feelings for one another and intent to make things work.
The ironic form, once it assumes an earnest content by being pulled outside of itself by love, is redeemed in a sense. And I don’t want to get too Christian-y here, but the Christmas setting and opening/closing snippets of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” would make it almost untrue to Stillman not to go there, briefly. Nick’s affection for Tom and not-so-gentle unmasking of his Fourierism allows Tom to break through his defensive shell, which leads to a ‘pursuit’ of Audrey which is really only an assent to the affection she’s expressed for him. The movements of grace here are real and powerful. And the movie ends up not being elitist at all, simply because the anxiety of Stillman’s ‘UHB’, the fear of trying and failing, and the corresponding effort to not make effort are universally human tendencies, and ones which demand love both to break through fatalism and to redeem the failures we make “without being doomed” to.
By its end, the film itself reaches the same point which Tom and Audrey do: the ability to use irony not as defense or refusal to speak seriously, but as a nuanced form for expressing earnest thoughts and real emotions.
In the first four or so minutes, in the course of one of his intellectual rambles, Charlie makes an argument for the existence of God:
“When you think to yourself – and most of our waking life is taken up thinking to ourselves – you must have that feeling that your thoughts aren’t entirely wasted, that in some sense they are being heard. Rationally, they aren’t; you’re entirely alone. Even the people to whom we are closest can have no idea of what is going on in our minds. But we aren’t devastated by loneliness because, at a hardly conscious level, we don’t accept that we’re entirely alone. I think this sensation of being silently listened to with total comprehension – something you never find in real life – represents our innate belief in a supreme being, some all-comprehending intelligence.”
Of course, Charlie’s God would be someone with the patience to listen to him with and the weirdness to understand him. Half the time, no one else knows what he’s saying; as a kid, he tried to communicate with seagulls. But that doesn’t at all detract from the hope he expresses here. The immensely clever and yet constantly self-parodying dialogues of these characters need something to invest them with meaning, need some touchstone in reality. But even these characters’ fears of von Sloneker, self-describing acronyms, arguments over defunct socialists and, yes, cha-cha dancing are perhaps “no more ridiculous than life itself.” All the absurdity is invested with a deep lovability, and Stillman’s process of aestheticizing absurdity, writing the script from a perspective where it all does have meaning, even meaning in its aimlessness – that’s a true risk, and one that doesn’t fail.