Year of Release: 1998 Directed by Whit Stillman. Starring Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar, Tara Subkoff, and Robert Sean Leonard.
As a Catholic, frequenting the sacrament of confession has been a fairly regular aspect of my life. And for the most part, I have spent a good portion of my life confessing the same sins over and over again, despite my best intentions not to continue committing them. I think of that when Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), who spends a good portion of this film blissfully unaware that she tries to control others’ lives while cattily judging them, reflects on the beauty of Amazing Grace. As she proceeds to sing the first two verses, we see some of the costly consequences of her and her friend Alice’s (Chloë Sevigny) mistakes as well as opportunities for second chances. And after this moment of moral insight, in the next scene, she returns to being a bitch toward her friends.
That mixture of trying and promptly forgetting to try to do what’s right is what gives The Last Days of Disco an endearing balance of comedy, pathos, and insight. As Eve Tushnet wrote:
“There are ways of doing tragedy or satire where it’s about people willfully being awful, but I think my favorite tragedies and satires are about how many important things we botch when we’re trying very hard not to.”
From the very first scene, we watch all the characters stress and meticulously calculate the most probable way they will gain admittance to the prestigious disco club in Manhattan. After walking to the club, Charlotte and Alice decide it will look more prestigious if they arrive in a cab, so they hail one to drive them less than a block. Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), whose advertising firm has given him the odd ultimatum to get clients into the disco club or be fired, frets over the best way to make a good impression on the bouncer, and he goes so far as to give one of his clients his coat to mask the gaudy plaid jacket the man is wearing. Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) is going along with Jimmy, and he ends up getting into the club by the luck of escaping the bouncer’s notice. For all the worry of these characters about proving the value of their social lives by entering the disco club, whether they succeed, to a large extent, comes down to luck.
The aura of prestige surrounding disco serves as a reminder that there are things worth striving for and that even a genre as reviled as disco may have more value than its detractors give it credit for. The titular words, “the last days” suggests a time that is passing and worth remembering, but it also suggests that the characters should think about a future outside of disco.
One permanent fixture at the club is Des, (an endearingly complacent Chris Eigeman) whose job is some sort of back entrance bouncer and other miscellaneous tasks. Eigeman perfectly captures the film’s heart of trying and failing by trying for all the wrong things. He puts his energy into making sure his ex-girlfriends still like him by telling them he’s gay, or might be gay, rather than putting energy into the relationships. He spends more time rationalizing why he’s the best for his job instead of doing his job. Ultimately, he does have a brilliant and amusing moment of insight when he turns an oft-misquoted Shakespeare line on its head:
“You know that Shakespearean admonition, “To thine own self be true?” It’s premised on the idea that “thine own self” is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if “thine own self” is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, not to be true to thine own self? See, that’s my situation.”
As Charlotte and Alice, Beckinsale and Sevigny make a compelling screen duo, anchoring the ensemble and portraying a friendship and rivalry of two young women both working in publishing in New York. They both want to support one another, and the scene where they put down a patronizing male co-worker makes for great comedy, but neither wants to disadvantage her career or social standing by helping the other too much.
Alice is a more reserved person who clearly has less partying experience, and her hesitance in ordering drinks and only naming one or two cocktails with which she’s familiar is funny to anyone who’s been in a bar for the first time and only knows a couple of drinks, if any. Alice’s desire for a dating life leads to regrettable consequences as she tries her hardest to go about it the culturally “right” way. Charlotte’s insists that she and Alice will be good friends, even as she pushes Alice into awkward scenarios for the sake of boosting her ego. Nearly all of their behavior contributes to that central character flaw of trying the wrong way and repeatedly making the same mistakes.
Finally, the film is loaded with subtle moments of humor, which I must confess, I totally missed on my first viewing several years ago. The comic awkwardness of trying to do what is expected while being totally unsure what that is comes across beautifully, and it makes all these characters loveable as they try, despite their propensity for messing up. Because after all, we have a God who loves us despite our messing-up the same way over and over again.
Content Advisory: Brief full frontal nudity, a fleeting shot of an interrupted sexual encounter, casual discussion of sex acts, and some drug use. MPAA rating: R
Suggested audience: Adults
Personal Recommendation: A+