It’s very fortunate for Damsels in Distress (2012) that Greta Gerwig is so effervescent. Otherwise, Whit Stillman, who wrote and directed it, would have a laborious and unfunny movie on his hands. He still doesn’t have a good one, but he casts well, and Gerwig, who’s written as a batty, annoying, flighty know-it-all, is able to transcend the writing and simply be all those thing but a little less.
The movie takes place at Seven Oaks University where they don’t have a Greek system but a Roman system (“We were at the D.U. house, which has Roman letters”), which is just as well because everyone talks as if their words have been translated from Latin. At Seven Oaks it’s possible to take a Flit Lit course, which is the examination of the dandy tradition in writing. On campus there’s a student Suicide Prevention Center run by Violet (Gerwig) and her clique (though unfortunately the sign that the word “Prevention” is written on often falls down); the preferred therapy at the prevention center appears to be donuts and tap dancing.
Violet has opinions on everything, is deathly sensitive to odors (Seven Oaks was the last college in the conference that was made co-ed and apparently a culture of body odor still predominates), obsessed with dance crazes and able to conform the oddest of behavior to her convoluted theories. It’s very dangerous to have a boyfriend, we’re told, because boyfriends lead to depression or as Violet prefers “tailspins.” Yet Violet seems to gravitate toward boys, but only losers, we’re told, because one of the human race’s unfortunate tendencies is to try to date someone better than they are, so she does the opposite. Perhaps this type of person seems appealing to you; for me, a little went a very long way.
Amazingly, however, new student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who conceivably could choose to be friends with whomever she likes, elects to run in Violet’s circle, graciously accepting Violet’s condescending offer to help her fit in. I was reminded of Mean Girls (2004) which had an obnoxious gaggle of girls with the same make-up (beyond Violet’s ringleader there’s a sassy friend and a ditz), and Lindsey Lohan’s character in that movie was intended to be our surrogate entering into this strange land, just as Lily is in Damsels in Distress. The difference is, in Mean Girls, Lohan’s character had a reason to infiltrate the clique; in Damsels in Distress, we’re not quite sure why Lily wastes so much time with these girls.
Questioning what characters see in other characters is a theme of the movie. Violet catches her idiot boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) cheating on her which sends Violet into a tailspin. Frank is such a moron it’s hard to believe that someone, even one as clueless as Violet, would be upset about him being out of her life. All the characters in Damsels in Distress are broadly drawn, but the men get the worst of it, existing only as either imbecilic macho stereotypes or sleazy operators. That would be fine; this is the girls’ story (and there are far too many movies where the female characters are only defined as types), but the movie insists that these splay presentations are hilarious.
There’s a male character here who doesn’t know what the colors are. I thought he was colorblind, but no, he just doesn’t know what green is. How am I supposed to attach any kind of meaning to a movie that wants me to believe a man got into any college without knowing what green is? There is a title card in the movie that gives instruction on how to do the dance craze that Violet is trying to get off the ground; it reads, “If you can count to 8 you can do the Sambola!” There are more than a few characters in the movie I doubt could meet the requirement.
The movie spends the rest of its running time letting the characters try to out-bizarre each other. There’s a vague suggestion that Violet is crazy and that she knows it, and that her insanity goes unnoticed by the world because she’s pretty and dresses well, like some of the attacks on society made by American Psycho (2000), but this idea is never developed because the movie seems to be so impressed with her and would rather give us a surreal musical number.
Stillman is clearly a student of movies (his earlier, better work had the feel of the Great Depression–era comedies, just as this one seems to be a mutation of a 1950s college movie), and he populates Damsels in Distress with both subtle and obvious references. He wants me, specifically, to like it, giving me a prominently placed poster for Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937) and even going so far as to have two characters discuss Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (1968), a personal favorite, but I can’t be bought that easily.
Perhaps, Stillman should have paid attention to the tone and craft of the movies he references as opposed to hoping that the mere mention of them will draw his work closer to them. Damsels in Distress made me further appreciate Wes Anderson, who can do this polished weirdness as well as anybody, but who always resists drifting into the irritating space Stillman occupies here. I found the movie to be so aggravating because of its self-assured certainty of its cleverness. The script is so impressed with itself that it can’t be delivered; it can only exist abstractly because it’s so scrubbed clean of reality that when it’s performed by real people there’s nothing for us to attach ourselves to.
It was frustrating to watch Gerwig, who couldn’t be more appealing, toil in this drudge. That she salvages her own dignity is a miracle enough, that she makes Violet esculent at all, if still distasteful, is beyond belief. I also liked Megalyn Echikunwoke as one of Violet’s pals; she also betrays an intelligence that the words she’s made to say can’t fully remove, though she is saddled with saying the same phrase ad nauseum: “He’s a bit of a playboy and an operator.” Which is actually a decent description of Stillman here, who wants to present us with a joke that we can’t possibly get, then react to our silence as if we didn’t know what green is.