Nineteen-hundred and ninety. For me, it was the year of the first movies I saw, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Jetsons: The Movie.” “Metropolitan” would come years later as the first indie film I saw in a fit of cinematic exploration and education, a time when I was slowly coming into my obsession with the movies, wondering about the grand and glorious history that was out there and watching more than sanity would usually allow. In a story rife with ironic humor couched in the lives of the young upper class in New York City, “Metropolitan” was ironically bought and released by New Line, which was flush with cash after “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was released. I don’t always look for connections. Sometimes it’s enough just to be amused by them.
When I saw “Metropolitan”, either at 14 or 15 years old, there was a lot to think about, bordering on frustration. There was no way anyone could connect with these characters! They’re rich! They speak expensive words like “fourierism”! But was a movie bad simply because it was hard to like these characters or relate to them? Should a movie be afforded a chance based on that? Back then, after 45 minutes, I was eager for it to end. There was some nice cinematography, but nothing else. Now, with more years far behind me, there’s a different feeling toward “Metropolitan.” These characters do matter in many ways. First, through Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), we are led into an entirely unfamiliar world. It’s at times grossly unattractive as Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), is always harping on society and other opinions he has, but never really seems to live anywhere else in his life. He doesn’t look like the kind who has ever been seen away from a plush chair, passionately talking up what is only important to him. Nick Smith (Christopher Eigeman), who never met an ill-fitting well-tailored suit, is egotistical, into himself, and always has it in for Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kemp) whom he sees as a bad person simply because, well, Rick is who he is. Rick looks polite and charming to the women, but Nick bellows otherwise.
However, Nick’s complaints aren’t made out to be cartoony or to see him as a buffoon. Writer/director Whit Stillman is keenly aware of who these people are. They live lives of exclusivity, roped into the Sally Fowler (Dylan Hundley) Rat Pack. While traffic zooms along on the streets of New York, they sit and talk. It’s one of the more rewarding experiences in movie dialogue because while it doesn’t look like the characters do much in their lives, everything we need to know about them is contained in their words, especially when they’re huddled separately, the women (Isabel Gillies, Allison Rutledge-Parisi, and Hundley) especially. Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina) is the most charming of the group and don’t let her last name fool you. With her formal dresses and an appearance bordering on snootiness, she’s inextricably a part of this Rat Pack. But she looks like she’s had some outside experience, teetering between here and there. She harbors a crush on Tom, who doesn’t notice since he’s still after an old flame, Serena Slocum (now there’s a last name for the debutante crowd), who we learn had many boyfriends and kept track of all with the many letters she wrote to them.
With all these characters, urbane dialogue, and parts of New York City lovingly filmed, “Metropolitan” is definitely a movie to connect with. Stillman, partly influenced by Woody Allen with his manner of opening credits and a beautiful, flowing, slightly jazzy score, makes these people work. There is so much to see, so much to listen to and so much to know. A few of the characters are minor, such as Fred Neff (Bryan Leder), who takes to drink and sleep, but is mellow about it. Watch whomever you want in this, whether it’s Charlie and his never-ending philosophies, or Tom and his gradual comfort with this moneyed world (he’s from the Upper West Side, living with his divorced mother and to the Rat Pack, less well off than them), and there’s complete satisfaction. There is suspense, which in later years, turned out to be even more of a surprise in Stillman’s other films, but there it is in the question of when the nights of talking and sitting around would end, when it would be time for all of them to finally grow up. There’s some time spend towards the end of the movie answering just this, in the process making friends between two unlikely people.
Even though Stillman hasn’t made a movie since 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco”, much attention is showered upon him through Criterion’s “Metropolitan” DVD, nicely loaded with all the right extras. Stillman gets time to talk about making an indie film with a commentary that includes Eigeman and Nichols, and editor Christopher Tellefsen and it’s plenty useful for any curious indie filmmaker wondering how Stillman made the most out of the money he was given, including some shots outside The Plaza when the hotel didn’t know about it. Nichols speaks about some of the difficulty in playing Charlie, to the extent where he had to research what Charlie was going to talk about. The commentary is as relaxed as the film, with all four taking their time, as if relishing the filmmaking experience all over again. Outtakes would almost seem uncouth, but here they are, more useful as a record of what it was like for Stillman and all the others to make “Metropolitan.” In some moments, there are the typical mistakes in speaking the lines, and in others, it’s simply trying out a different word or phrase in the course of a scene. There is also a fitting and subtle memorial for Brian Greenbaum, their line producer who died in 1992.
It’s not only in Stillman, Eigeman, Nichols, and Tellefsen that the indie spirit of this film is prevalent, but also in the alternate castings of two of the roles, both shown here. In the commentary for the first alternate casting, Stillman has a very good explanation. Instead of the nondescript character actor who appeared as the record producer towards the end, Stillman once had Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman play the role, and he admits to having a misconception of the part, since Kaufman played it a bit comically, more friendlier than somewhat threatening. There was also a switch around in one of the roles as Stillman tried Will Kempe as Nick Smith, which doesn’t work as Kempe speaks too smoothly and confidently. Nick does speak confidently many times, but there’s a slight edge in Eigeman, another emotion beneath the words that appears towards the end. That’s what keeps us watching him and the others. There’s also a theatrical trailer which tries to place everything in the context of crossed-wire love triangles. It’s one way to look at it all, or at least one way to get into it.
Years go by and different perceptions of a film are possible. A second chance with “Metropolitan” results in a rewarding experience and third, fourth, and fifth chances shouldn’t be uncommon. It’s quite a DVD too, as Criterion keeps hitting all the right notes, even the very subtle ones that aren’t noticed right away. At times, Criterion plays jazz, other times opera, and even elsewhere, classical music. Somehow, they just know what each DVD should contain. “Metropolitan” will now have its proper day because of that, and because Stillman’s vision and words last as memory, as a look back at a more innocent time, as a thought stretched luxuriously into sarcasm, some cynicism, and many simple and sublime moments. These lives that may not have been seen yet are lives worth watching.