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Review: The Last Days of Disco (1998)

The Last Days of Disco (1998)

Directed by: Whit Stillman

Premise: A group of people connected by professional and romantic associations operate and patronize a Manhattan dance club at the end of the disco era.

What Works: The Last Days of Disco is a story about the end of youth and the collision of idealism with reality. The story centers on a pair of recent college graduates, played by Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, who spend their days working at a book publishing company and their nights at a disco club. Sevigny and Beckinsale are great frenemies, with Sevigny playing the sensitive but earnest woman who is often the victim of her own vulnerability and the target of insults by Beckinsale’s character. Beckinsale does a great job portraying a really awful person but the actress and the script don’t simply paint her as a mean girl. It is clear that the character views her caustic remarks as an expression of honesty and the articulation of an idealistic dream, and like most idealists she is narrow minded and hostile to anything that betrays that dream. The film smartly connects this disco-based idealism with the pair’s work at the publishing company, as their comments and behaviors in regard to the new sexual, social, and aesthetic norms reflect and influence their work with book manuscripts. In the supporting cast are Chris Eigeman as a club employee who ascends from bouncer to manager and Matt Keeslar as a prosecutor investigating drug activities at the club. Although there is not much in the way of tension as a result of the investigation, the film nicely ties together the legal matters with the personal relationships, especially as Eigeman and Keeslar’s characters enter into conflict over the woman played by Chloë Sevigny. As the end of the disco era approaches, the characters of The Last Days of Disco face unemployment, the responsibilities of adulthood, and the consequences of their choices. As the film gets to these narrative and thematic climaxes, it reveals itself as a deeply sardonic piece and careful viewers will be rewarded by discovering that, all along, writer and director Whit Stillman is really mocking these people. It isn’t apparent throughout the first half the film and it is a strain on the viewer’s patience to take the snide pseudo-intellectual posturing of these yuppies seriously. But by the end, the film reveals that these people are fools, imagining themselves sophisticated and elite when really they represent the collapse of culture and intellectual discourse while dancing to crappy disco music.

What Doesn’t: The Last Days of Disco is not as flashy or as decadent as some other films about the period such as 54 or Saturday Night Fever. The Last Days of Disco attempts to be a different kind of disco film, one that tries to intellectualize the values of the time. It’s almost a parody of the disco film although not quite. This is more like a Jane Austin or Bret Easton Ellis novel, creating drama among the affluent echelons of society while also mocking it. Viewers who are looking for an experience that celebrates the music of the 1970s should look elsewhere.

DVD extras: The Criterion Collection edition of The Last Days of Disco includes deleted scenes, featurette, audio excerpts from the novel, commentary track, trailer, and a stills gallery.  

Bottom Line: The Last Days of Disco may be a film with narrow appeal; there are more entertaining pictures about the disco scene of the 1970s and 80s to be found. But for those who get the joke, The Last Days of Disco is an amusing and interesting take on youth and the end of the disco era.

Episode: #330 (March 13, 2011)