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'Damsels in Distress' review: Greta Gerwig shines in aimless comedy

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Released on Friday, Apr 20 2012

'Damsels in Distress' still

Whit Stillman hasn't made a film since the raved-about Last Days of Disco (1998), and middle age doesn't seem to have broadened his outlook much. Damsels in Distress is another super dry comedy of manners about middle-class kids dizzied by the social whirl, but this one feels unintentionally out of step with contemporary culture.

Judging by the outfits, it's set around the 1950s or 1960s at an Ivy League college for privileged morons (or else all the students are self-consciously retro). And, at first glance, Violet (Greta Gerwig) appears to be the sort of blonde ice queen who reigns with terror at every high school and college in America; she wafts around campus, dispensing biting remarks applauded by her acolytes.

But, what sets Violet apart and makes her more alluring is that she thinks she is a philanthropist.

'Damsels in Distress' still
She takes it upon herself to save a nervous new student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) from the clutches of the sorority house and instead has her join the volunteer team at a suicide prevention centre. Aside from trying to bring hope to depressed students - with scented soap and tap dance classes - Violet also believes in dating "inferior" frat boys with the intent of raising them to maturity.

It's a brilliantly twisted point of view and Gerwig (who outshone Ben Stiller in Greenberg) plays the part straight as an arrow through the heart. Eventually though, Violet must reassess her beliefs after catching her dippy beau (Ryan Metcalf) snogging one of her suicidal charity cases. Meanwhile Lily is caught between a pseudo-intellectual pervert (Hugo Becker) and The OC's Adam Brody.

Despite having a false identity as a high-flying young exec in "strategic development", Brody's character appears to be the most grounded of the bunch. Lily should be our eyes and ears on this incredibly bizarre campus culture, but she's just too blandly portrayed to care about. Violet may have a totally skewed perspective, but Gerwig at least gives her some soul.

In any case, this isn't the type of film that asks for emotional investment. Stillman presents the supporting players like cardboard cut-outs arranged for target practice in an endless assault of glib humour. It's funny for a while, but eventually it begins to grate. Megalyn Echikunwoke has only one joke - pretending she's British and deeming every boy an "operator" - and kills that fairly quickly.

The overriding problem is that the satire has no clear aim. Apparently, Stillman is having a dig at people who believe they are superior by taking a superior approach to them. But when revision time comes and the frat boys have trouble identifying the primary colours, you're forced to wonder who Stillman is really poking fun at: the frat boys, or you, for having paid to laugh at them?


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