Director Mark Christopher’s “54” tells a shining part-fact/part-fiction tale of life in the world’s most star-studded club of the 1970’s. From the closing credits, the audience gets a still life view of what the real Studio 54 looked like in a series of black-and-white photos featuring the likes of Sylvester Stalone, Farah Fawcett and Gilda Radner. These pictures give a fun, nostalgic closure to the film which portrays some grave, but mostly fun-loving images of its own.
“54” tells the story of neophyte Shane (Ryan Phillippe) who yearns for more than the same old girls in the same old clubs in New Jersey. He ventures into nearby New York city for a taste of the big time and he’s given cherished admittance into Studio 54 by legendary club manager Steve Rubell (Mike Meyer) who works the door each night letting in only the noted and beautiful.
Shane meets up with Anita (Salma Hayek), the coat check girl trying to be a star, and eventually, with his original reason for going to the club, starlet Julie Black (Neve Campbell) a Jersey girl herself who has made the big time. The story details just what each clubber will do to get ahead and how Studio 54 becomes a big part of that life each is seeking.
Relative Newcomer Phillippe (I Know What You Did Last Summer) brings an innocence to his role that allows the audience to always look at the goings-on through his eyes. A surprisingly richer performance than expected from a neophyte in his own right, fresh off the set of the latest “Scream” copy. But at times, his character is allowed to become part of the party at Studio 54 and his golden, Blue Lagoon-inspired curls connoted images best fitting a Greek orgy. And in fact, this was the mood manager Steve Rubell (Meyer) was trying to create in the club, one that holds the freedom of sex without consequence and brings back the days of the carefree Roman emperors. Played expertly by Meyer with excruciating realism but still the timing of a comic genius, the audience experiences both the downward-spiraling but always exciting life of those who hold the power. In the end, we’re given only a small hit of what real concerns lie behind that usually carefree facade (sporting a latex nose to recreate his biographical character). Even when barfing, he doesn’t seem to be having a terribly bad time.
Although the background of the club and seeing how it worked from front door to basement is a fascinating story expertly directed by Christopher, the sub-plot involving soap opera glamour girl brings little interest. Campbell has to pull off both glamour queen and then girl next door and falls short. Maybe its the freckles, but I always felt myself wondering through either the cigarette smoke or the fake Jersey accent what her pals were up to on Party of Five.
The writer seems helpless in finding a way to wrap up the story beyond the arrest of Rubell. Despite this event and the subsequent ‘restructuring’ of the club, very few negatives are uncovered in a life spent hustling and seeking excess. Beyond one ominous death scene and only one reference to the undoubtedly rampant venereal diseases (“It feels like I’m peeing razor blades”), there’s little to show what must have resulted in messed up lives right and left. The movie does a great job of capturing the excessive behavior and the fun that was had but it falls short in delivering a realistic picture of lives after the party ends. Christopher, like Rubell, is into giving his audience escape, not reality.