Whit Stillman’s reputations rests upon a small body of work. After The Last Days of Disco (1998), he seemed, for a time, to be done. Twelve years later when he released Damsels in Distress, his fourth film, its reception was somewhat mixed; Damsels in Distress was cute and candy-colored, not much like the more muted and sophisticated Last Days of Disco. The dialogue, however, was still pure Stillman: neurotic WASPs worrying over the same customs and declining social mores, striking poses they don’t quite have the weight to hold onto. It wasn’t an altogether successful update, though it’s hard not to love a light-hearted romantic comedy that is constantly cracking jokes about suicide—or perhaps that’s just me.
Now, we haveThe Cosmopolitans, Stillman’s new pilot on Amazon. Visually, at any rate, it resembles nothing so much as his first film, Metropolitan, all grown up and finally beautiful. There’s a red-headed guy (Jordan Roundtree) all hung up on his flighty ex; his worldly-wiser but still romantic friend (Adam Brody, doing a startling Chris Eigeman impression); a cute brunette (Carrie MacLemore) whose air of innocence draws both these men into her orbit. Even Chloë Sevigny’s character, a fashion journalist, feels more like one of the women of Metropolitan than her Last Days of Disco character.
These resemblances are hard to escape, and some of them are certainly intentional. (Naming Carrie MacLemore’s character “Aubrey” and having others mistakenly call her “Audrey” is a clear tip of the hat to Metropolitan’s heroine.) Still, The Cosmopolitans isn’t Metropolitan, But Made With Money This Time. Despite looking like a return to form, there’s actually something very different about it. But this time, it’s the dialogue.
If Damsels in Distress was an attempt at making a movie in a new style but married to the same bookish sensibility, The Cosmopolitans is the opposite: the old visual style, placed at the service of pure fun. What (it seems to be saying) if all those conversations weren’t about Jane Austen and Lionel Trilling and The Lady and the Tramp? What if there weren’t layers on layers of commentary here? What if they were just—talking? It’s hard to imagine that working any better than Damsels in Distress, but here’s the curious part: it does.
The pilot introduces us to its cast of expatriates living in Paris and then ends after establishing them. We meet Aubrey, the cute brunette, who has come to Paris with a boyfriend who almost immediately abandoned her; Jimmy and Hal, two American expatriates who defensively refer to themselves as “Parisians”; Sandro, a grumpy Italian full of opinions; and Fritz, a playboy who is Jimmy and Hal’s road into the Paris social scene.
Finally, floating above them is Vicky, a dry fashion journalist whose main function in the pilot is to appear and mock the other American characters for their ineradicable Americanness. (It’s clear that as far as Vicky is concerned, this show is called The Cosmopolitan.) These characters have a handful of interactions, eventually end up at a party from which some of them, in the episode’s first glimmer of conflict, get thrown out. The end! Do you want more? Well, that’s up to the vagaries of the popular vote.
In its short running time, most of The Cosmopolitans hits the right notes. The scene where Jimmy refers to himself as a Parisian and thus attracts Vicky’s undying scorn is probably the best in the pilot, but there are others that stand out. In the opening scene, Aubrey is exiled to her tiny chambre de bonne and told by her boyfriend she’s not allowed to use the apartment kitchen while he leaves her for eight months (he tried to get her kitchen privileges, he says, “but all [he] could do was… nothing”). Fritz tries to console Hal for losing his girlfriend (again) by pushing him into having an affair with a bored married woman. Hal is having none of it: “I couldn’t just plunge into some decadent affair,” he says.
“It doesn’t have to be decadent,” Fritz replies. “You could go hiking.”
And the dialogue? Together with the sophisticated look, it comes as more—well—mature, perhaps. These characters no longer have to signal their emotions and their stances through proxies. They can converse like ordinary people, and we can pick up the rest. It turns out that when Stillman’s characters just talk—not about society, not about books, not about movies—they talk pretty well. And he can expertly depict, say, the awkwardness of flirting with strangers at parties even if those strangers aren’t having a conversation about the awkwardness of flirting at parties (or the evolution of disco, or Jane Austen).
In fact, the character here most like someone who might have appeared in one of Stillman’s other films, Sandro—an Italian who monologues a good bit about “American men” and complains about cellphones—is the part of the pilot that comes off the worst. I sometimes found myself wishing he simply wasn’t there, even though he might have fit perfectly into, say, The Last Days of Disco (a movie I love). But here, his dialogue isn’t funny and it doesn’t seem so observant. It just seems trite.
So while The Cosmopolitans is good, it’s more than good. It’s a sign of artistic growth and change, and in a direction that seems very promising. And it’s only twenty-seven minutes long, so go watch it. Vote for it. Not just because whatever Stillman plans to make is going to be fun, but because it’s going to be new. I went into The Cosmopolitans expecting something comfortable and familiar; I came out realizing I had no idea what would happen next. Not a bad feeling to have.