Metropolitan – Bonfire Of The Vanities – tape 1608

Here’s a couple of films set in New York, featuring some rich people. Well, that’s almost a theme.

Metropolitan is a lovely film, written and directed by Whit Stillman (who recently made Love and Friendship) about the New York debutante scene, viewed from the eyes of a young man who is definitely not in that social class.

As an added bonus, it starts at Christmas.

It starts off with a chance meeting over a taxi. Tom is a fairly poor young man, who meets a group of young, rich debutantes over a taxi. They invite him to the party they’re going to, and we meet that social set. Tom does know a girl they know, but is dismayed to find out that he wasn’t the only boy she wrote letters to. “I remember a long letter you wrote Serena about agrarian socialism.”

Edward Clements

They’re an intellectual bunch, so Tom fits in, despite avowedly disapproving of deb parties on strict socialist grounds. The dialogue is often really funny. “Jane’s father’s dead, very suddenly last year.” “Must have been awful for her.” “Yes. It was tough on him, too.”

One of the group, Audrey (Carolyn Farina) seems to like Tom, and they discuss Jane Austen and Mansfield Park. At one point he admits that he hasn’t read Mansfield Park, only the literary criticism of it. “That way you get the novelist’s idea as well as the critic’s thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it ever really happened. That it’s all just made up by the author.” I like the way the Stillman isn’t afraid to give his ‘hero’ dumb opinions.

Carolyn Farina

It’s a very sweet film, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes a bit of light comedy.

On the other axis of Manhattan comedy, it’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s based on the first novel by Tom Wolfe (who wrote The Right Stuff and many other classic works of non fiction) and the novel was much beloved by the literary set, so the movie was eagerly awaited. It’s was big budget, an all star cast headlined by Tom Hanks, and directed by Brian De Palma.

Perhaps de Palma wasn’t the best choice to direct a sharp literary comedy about the glitterati of New York. He hasn’t made much comedy since Phantom of the Paradise, and although that one has a lot of admirers, it’s not the funniest movie in the world.

The opening apes the opening of his later Snake Eyes, a long single steadicam take from an underground car park, through the back of a hotel, with Bruce Willis as the writer Peter Fallow, who has written the story we’re about to see, being ushered up to an obviously important affair, while being totally drunk and completely obnoxious.

The story he wrote was about Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks). He’s a powerful investment banker, dubbed by Wolfe (and Willis) a Master of the Universe, who’s having an affair with Melanie Griffiths, to the annoyance of his wife Kim Catrall.

Melanie Griffiths and Tom Hanks

In a weird way this story wouldn’t play out the same today as it did. The two events that spark it off are Hanks, taking his dog for a walk in the rain in order to ring Griffiths from a payphone, and accidentally dialling his home number, tipping Cattrall off about the affair. And then, when he’s driving Griffiths home from the airport, he misses his turn off the freeway, takes the next one, then gets lost in an ‘undesirable’ part of town. He’s accosted by two black men, Griffiths panics and drives at speed, possibly hitting one of them.

Then we visit Morgan Freeman’s courtroom. He’s a judge, and he explains for our benefit that it’s an election year, and the District Attorney is looking for a high profile white defendant to offset charges of racism against the department. I wonder if you can tell where this story might be going?

Morgan Freeman

We’re also introduced to the Reverend Bacon, a very thinly disguised version of reverend Al Sharpton, played by John Hancock.

John Hancock

Note the film’s frankly annoying over-use of extreme wide angle lenses. They’re everywhere.

I think one of the main problems is that the novel is one of those sprawling tales, with lots of characters, which is fine in a novel but hard to compress into a movie. Plus, so many of the principals are horrid right from the start, that it’s hard to have sympathy for them. Even casting Tom Hanks as Sherman McCoy, the most likeable actor in Hollywood, doesn’t really make you that sympathetic to him.

To be honest, the film isn’t great. What I would recommend, though, is Julie Salamon’s book about the making of the movie, The Devil’s Candy. It tells a story about a movie out of control, and it’s far more interesting than anything in the movie. One story it tells is how De Palma had a second unit crew sent out to film Concorde landing at sunset. The crew were there for weeks waiting for a landing at just the right time, and as the budget grew, they bet De Palma the shot wouldn’t make it into the movie anyway, Since De Palma has final cut, he won that bet.

After the movie, there’s the start of another, Into The Sun starring Michael Paré. Looks like a cut-price Top Gun rip-off. The tape ends shortly into this film.

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6 comments

  1. “Into The Sun” is closer to “The Hard Way” than “Top Gun,” really. Which is hardly a bad thing. On the other hand, “Wise Guys” IS a bad thing. If only that had put Brian DePalma off directing anything like a comedy ever again.

  2. De Palma’s early counterculture comedies he made with Robert De Niro are well worth a look, very weird and spiky but thought provoking too. He seemed to be trying the same thing on Bonfire with a bloated Hollywood blockbuster and proceeded to fall flat on his face. If you’re the sort of person who can’t take their eyes off actresses, you can note Melanie Griffith and her amazing increasing and decreasing bosom thanks to her cosmetic surgery halfway through production messing up continuity.

    Incidentally, how great is Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship?

    1. I still haven’t seen Love & Friendship. It never made it to our local multiplex so I’m looking forward to it popping up on one of the streaming services. I also need to catch up with Stillman’s other films – haven’t seen Barcelona or Last Days of Disco either.

      1. Stillman’s work seems to be an acquired taste judging by a lot of the reaction I see about the internet, but Love & Friendship is definitely one of his more popular efforts, which is largely down to Kate Beckinsale who proves herself the equal of her late, great dad in getting laughs (though it’s a totally different performance). I wasn’t sure about inventing an American character so Chloe Sevigny could get something to do, but overall it’s a treat. It should be streaming by now, I think.

  3. “If you’re the sort of person who can’t take their eyes off actresses, you can note Melanie Griffith and her amazing increasing and decreasing bosom thanks to her cosmetic surgery halfway through production messing up continuity.”

    Lets hope Dakota Johnson doesn’t follow in her mother’s footsteps in that respect.

    1. I saw Dakota in that Italian film A Bigger Splash, and she looks to be holding up her end of the family business by getting her kit off as much as her mum did. Mind you, everyone’s naked in that movie, including Ralph Fiennes somewhat improbably.

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