It’s supremely ironic that Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990) was released the same year that Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho finally saw publication; the two are basically set in the same “world”—that of wealthy, young, white Manhattan in the late ’80s—but their attitudes toward it could not have been more divergent. Where Ellis’ novel is relentless in its depiction of that world as soulless and cruel, Stillman’s film is wistful and romantic; it has a soft look, like an illustration done in pencil. At its most bitter moments (there aren’t many), it suggests that some members of its prep-school social set are pompous and given to self-aggrandizement. The satire in this film, like its visual style, is soft. It never gets far away from the side of its characters, and it appears to agree with the notion (voiced by one of them) that the “urban haute-bourgeoisie” (“UHB”) is a dying breed, and that that’s a bad thing.
It’s somewhat difficult to get behind a movie that appears to be so clever yet remains so fatally locked inside its own self-enclosed world of money, privilege, and idleness. Intelligence was no doubt put into the making of this movie; the actors (all unknowns) are capable, if a bit stiff, and Stillman’s dialogue is witty, if a bit arch. (Though set in the present, characters go around saying things like “You’re not such a bad fellow” and “Oh yes, terribly!” These aren’t touches of F. Scott Fitzgerald, they’re maulings.) At times you get the feeling that Stillman is putting some distance between himself and this weird, solipsistic world of debutante balls and black-tie parties, particularly when he has his male characters wax pretentious about literature and politics. The main character, Tom Townsend, also seems at first like he will provide some perspective on the others, because he’s introduced as an outsider to their circle—hailing from one rung lower on the social ladder, he finds himself accidentally drafted up and is made to pass for a member of the “UHB.” But no conflict arises from this; as soon as he’s able to buy himself evening clothes, the class difference is utterly forgotten, and he ends up just as bland and priggish as everyone else. And I don’t think our never getting outside this milieu is meant to show how insular and confining it is; at no point does Stillman suggest that there is an outside to get to.
The problem with the film seems to be its tone. It’s not the subject matter I object to (there are certainly many great films about the wealthy) but rather the sentimental, nostalgic haze that Stillman hangs over everything. At first we think that perhaps we’re meant to despise these foolish teenagers and their petty foibles, because that’s our instinct. (It was mine, anyway.) But then it appears that we’re supposed to sigh over how charming they are. Metropolitan proves that treating the upper classes with preciosity is just as offensive as sanctifying poor people.