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Damsels in Distress - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Damsels in Distress
Directing: C
Acting: B-
Writing: B
Cinematography: C+
Editing: C+

Damsels in Distress is a little cutesy from the start. Right in the opening titles, the four principals are listed as "The Damsels": unselfconsciously arrogant Violet (Greta Gerwig); new girl a the college Lily (Analeigh Tipton); and apparent Violet-sidekicks Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke). And then the next title card offers up four names of men as "The Distress": Ryan Metcalf; Jermaine Crawford; Zach Woods; and Hugo Becker.

There were a couple other guys in the cast, and maybe they were the four men with highest title placement. It hardly matters. These guys as "distress" for these young women get jumbled around a bit -- although, curiously, Rose never gets one of them; she seems to exist primarily to repeat the line "He's a smooth operator type."

Written and directed by Whit Stillman, this is a definitive step down -- perhaps a couple steps down, from his previous directorial effort, 1998's The Last Days of Disco. That movie was charming in its way, with its dialogue-heavy look at intellectualizing disco music. Stillman clearly loves dialogue and has a knack for it. Maybe he lost his touch a bit in the past 14 years. Damsels in Distress is still dialogue-heavy, which for some of us is part of the attraction: we certainly get enough dumb action movies with brainless dialogue.

The trouble here is, if the dialogue is not quite brainless, it's certainly listless. Such is the momentum of the story -- of which there is nearly none. Violet fancies herself a "helper" of peers in college she sees as less than herself, but not beneath her -- she seems to be fulfilled by dating moron frat boys because she enjoys feeling superior. How or why three otherwise intelligent women subscribe to the apparently unwritten rule that Violet is their leader is a mystery.

Another mystery: the surprisingly strong critical response to this film (76% "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes) as compared to a rather different response from audiences (56% rating). It's not unusual that audiences should disagree with critics, but the disparity doesn't tend to be that great. What is it about this movie that critics find endearing? I rather side with the audience on this one.

I mean, it's not terrible -- but Damsels in Distress certainly seems to fancy itself as much cleverer than it really is, which does place it firmly within the realm of pretentiousness. It's not overbearingly pretentious either, mind you; it's just . . . a bit sloppy, particularly for a film that, to a degree, wears a bit of propriety on its own sleeve. But that's precisely why it misfires: in what world do college women act so prim and speak with such precise diction? It's like watching a movie from the fifties but in a present-day setting.

The biggest problems are perhaps the delivery and the editing. Very little of the dialogue, which probably does come across as clever when written on the page, comes off as natural, or even part of a broader conversation between students that quite rings true. Nothing about the proceedings feels real, which is particularly a problem when it's just conversations on a college campus. There's nothing in the lack of realism to make it interesting -- no fantasy.

There was actually potential here. I got one good laugh out of it, after all. But seldom does so much potential go unrealized. The actors, all of them fine at the very least, are almost uniformly deadpan. This can be very effective in comedy when things are consistently funny. Instead, Damsels in Distress moves from moderately amusing to just plain tedious.

damsels in distress

Overall: C+
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