The Cosmopolitans, Whit Stillman’s new project about American expats in Paris, is several different kinds of experiment: It’s Stillman’s first foray into television. It’s a return to the slightly more naturalistic style of earlier movies like Metropolitan, rather than the more stylized approach of 2011’s wise and winsome Damsels in Distress. And it’s a commercial experiment, since Amazon is offering the pilot for free; the pilot’s ratings will decide whether Amazon picks up the whole series as part of its Prime content.
That experiment deserves to succeed. Judging by the pilot, The Cosmopolitans will please fans of Stillman’s movies. There’s culture-clash comedy of manners, amiable and opinionated youth, and some very fun dialogue. (“This is my friend Hal. He’s lonely and craves the company of maternal women.”)
The pilot’s plot is simple. Two Americans, Hal (Jordan Rountree, with his hand-carved WASP face, thin lips over fencepost teeth, and sharp comic timing) and Jimmy (a more authoritative and therefore more everyday Adam Brody), are people-watching at a cafe with their Italian friend Sandro (Adriano Giannini) when they meet newcomer Aubrey (Carrie MacLemore). To distract Hal and Aubrey from their indifferent romantic partners, the group heads out to a party hosted by the slightly sleazoid Fritz (Freddy Åsblom, looking twelve going on forty). They spend the party looking for love—but not happiness—and end up in the sad shared cab of the brokenhearted. Try, try again.
The dialogue has a few weak patches—repetitive jokes about people’s names help remind us that these characters are meeting an entire milieu for the first time, but that doesn’t mean I actually enjoyed bouts of, “There are people named Rufo?” and, “Jimmy. I love that name. Jimmy Stewart.” But that minor complaint was the pilot’s only flaw.
The series title conjures up images of amoral sophisticates, rootless citizens of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. These characters express definite, settled beliefs; they’re comfortable divvying up the world into good and bad choices, good and bad people.
They disagree about which people are sheep and which are gauche goats. There are several exchanges in which one of the Europeans criticizes somebody, and one of the Americans defends him or her—these Americans are chiefly distinguished by their acceptance of others’ bad behavior. The Europeans snipe at each other, on implicitly moral grounds. Sandro calls Fritz “a ridiculous pipsqueak.” Fritz, hissily, on Sandro: “He sort of issssssss a bad sort.” But the Americans try to stay friendly with everyone.
Sandro, who is one of the Americans’ shepherds in Parisian society, dismisses Hal as a “milksop” for continuing to chase after his hot-and-cold girlfriend Clemence. All these Americans are milksops, in the nicest possible way, putting up with the foibles of friends and the casual cruelties of romantic partners.
They know they’re being doormats. They don’t necessarily care. One of the sharpest, subtlest elements of the pilot’s humor is the regularity with which all the characters make what they themselves admit to be bad choices. The pilot is filled with characters refusing to defend themselves. Sandro confronts Hal: “You are pathetical! I can’t believe how you Anglo men let women push you around.… How many times has Clemence dumped you? Maybe twenty, thirty?”
And Hal, calmly: “Nothing like that. Maybe… sixteen? Seventeen?”
He adds simply, “Clemence is worth some pain.”
That’s one possible explanation, or excuse. The characters offer others: Maybe Hal keeps crawling back to Clemence because he can’t admit that she doesn’t love him. Maybe Aubrey puts up with her awful boyfriend Frederic because she’s “perversely attracted” to whiners. Maybe Sandro called some drug dealers to crash Fritz’s party out of “compulsion.” And maybe if you want to find love, even in Paris, you’ve gotta kiss a few frogs. (No offense.)
The tone of the show stays as light and easy as Rountree’s burdenless voice, but there are some poignant moments. Hal describes the cruel summer in which he met la Clemence fatale: “It was three summers ago. I was at a low point.”
“You’re always at a low point,” a listener interjects.
“No but… even lower. It’s one aspect of expatriate life rarely talked about: how lonely you can get. I thought coming to Paris would be a snap, but then summer came, and everyone left. It was horrible. I’d completely forgotten what that feeling was like. It’s something you experience in childhood and you never expect to again, the feeling of being hollowed out, a void inside which seems as if it would never be filled.”
And the greatness of this riff lies in the casual tone of voice with which it’s delivered. All this pain is normal: to be accepted, like everything else.
The last, wordless scene shows Hal and Aubrey and Sandro in the back of a cab, staring away from one another, lost in their private worlds. Each of them passes through all the aftermath emotions of a good party: disquiet, feline self-satisfaction, hope, apprehension… and then a certain familiar loneliness.
The Cosmopolitans would be worth watching even if you knew this was all you were going to get. But I hope that even if Aubrey and Hal won’t choose the right partners, Amazon chooses Aubrey and Hal.
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