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FW Weekly Disco Junk

Syrupy look at nightlife in the '70s is mighty hard to dance through.

By Joe Leydon

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  If 54 were any worse, it might have the saving grace of being a high-camp hoot. Unfortunately, this starry-eyed and foggy-headed mash note to disco culture and '70s excess isn't even flashy and trashy enough to be consistently ludicrous. There isn't even enough great disco music on the soundtrack. I mean, where's Donna Summer?

There are snatches of over-ripe dialogue and stretches of moralistic melodrama that will amuse the more undiscriminating aficionados of le bad cinema. Overall, however, 54 is the sort of dreary disaster that makes one long for the exuberant awfulness of, say, Can't Stop the Music or Showgirls.

Filmmaker Whit Stillman caught a lot of heat earlier this year for daring to focus on literate and loquacious proto-yuppies in his own evocation of '70s New York night life, The Last Days of Disco. Trouble was, most critics missed the whole point of Stillman's movie: For his white-bread, self-regarding characters, disco fever was simply one facet of their evolving lives during the transition from graduate school to the real world. In sharp contrast, most of the people in Mark Christopher's 54 regard nothing so important as getting past the velvet rope that divides the unhip from the in crowd at the entrance door of Studio 54, center of the Manhattan disco-culture universe.

Once inside, the chosen ones can dance until they drop, drink and drug until they feel no pain, and - most important - see all the right people while they themselves are seen. Better still, because it's 1979, there's never a morning after. Everyone knows that cocaine isn't addictive, and nobody has to worry - yet - about the oncoming AIDS epidemic. With so much going on, it's no wonder that these libertines have little time for intelligent conversation. Indeed, judging from what they do say to each other whenever the music stops in 54, it's a good idea for them to shut up and dance as much as possible.

There is something undeniably alluring about the idea of a guilt-free pleasure dome where, if you're one of the lucky ones, anything goes. Which goes a long way toward explaining why, during its brief but heady heyday, Studio 54 achieved international notoriety. According to the production notes for 54, writer-director Mark Christopher was graduating from high school in Fort Dodge, Iowa, "just as Studio 54 hit its white-hot zenith." According to Christopher, "Even in Iowa, I knew all about Studio 54 and dreamed about it, because just reading about it was exciting." From such teen-age fantasies, rotten movies often spring.

By the time Christopher finally made it to New York in the 1980s, Studio 54 was just a shadow of its former self, and the era of chemically enhanced hedonism was giving way to the age of safe sex and "Just say no." But dreams die hard. For his first effort as a feature filmmaker, Christopher has delved deep into his rose-tinted memories to create what the production notes optimistically describe as "a disco American Graffiti," or what a more cynical observer might call a second-rate Saturday Night Fever. That most of 54 seems synthetic and unconvincing should not be at all surprising - after all, it is the work of someone who has no first-hand knowledge of what he's waxing nostalgic about.

As 54 begins, Shane O'Shea (Ryan Phillippe), the hero of the piece, is a discontented 19-year-old hunk who slaves at a dead-end job in his New Jersey town, and dreams of the glittering nightlife across the river in New York. Shane also serves as the movie's narrator, suggesting that he is looking back at his youth from the perspective of someone who is older and presumably wiser. But as soon as he starts to describe the long-ago glamour of Studio 54 and its clientele, Shane sounds unmistakably like a incorrigibly starstruck teenager. (Or, perhaps more accurately, an incorrigibly starstruck moviemaker.) As he gushingly describes nightclub impresario Steve Rubell (Mike Myers) as "a man with a dream," a visionary who wanted to create "the best damn party in the world, a party that would go on forever," the fulsome praise suggests that maybe, just maybe, the whole movie is intended as some sort of put-on. But that impression rapidly fades as it becomes painfully obvious that Shane, like Christopher, is deadly serious.

Late one boogie night, Shane and some buddies approach the front door of Studio 54. But only Shane is allowed to enter, after arousing the, er, interest of the beefcake-obsessed Rubell, the grand kahuna of the trendy night spot. One thing leads to another, and soon Shane is a Studio 54 employee - first a scantily-clad busboy, then a bare-chested waiter - who becomes, by nature of his position in the center of the disco universe, a minor-league celebrity. Throughout it all, Shane remains what might charitably be described as an innocent. Less charitably, he might be tagged a dim bulb, a dunce who can't fully appreciate the praise when a voracious disco queen (Sela Ward) appraises his "talents."

"You have the body of [Michelangelo's] David," she coos, "and the face of a Botticelli." Shane replies: "Botti what?" Oh, dear.

Actually, the only thing Shane has going for him is his sullen, pouty good looks, and the movie is conspicuously coy about revealing just how far he'll go to exploit his appeal to women and men. Anita (Salma Hayek), a Studio 54 hat-check girl who dreams of being "the next Donna Summer," and her husband, Greg (Breckin Myer), a busboy who dabbles in drug dealing, demonstrate fewer scruples as they attempt to elevate their own profiles. In the end, however, they prove to be basically decent folks, much like the object of Shane's affection, Julie Black (Neve Campbell) a New Jersey-born soap-opera star who stops just short of completely prostituting herself in her pursuit of fame and fortune.

In fact, only Rubell comes across as totally amoral in his pursuit of the best and biggest party that money can buy and drugs can fuel. And yet, for all his wretched excesses, for all his frank propositioning of the hired help, Rubell is rendered throughout the film as a harmless voluptuary whose worst sin is duplicitous bookkeeping. When the IRS finally hauls him away in handcuffs, Rubell can't resist a withering wisecrack: "This is so tacky!" And you know what? You can't help laughing - and you can't help appreciating Mike Meyers' skin-deep but perversely ingratiating performance. Unlike anyone else in this ridiculously sincere and syrupy movie, he actually seems to be having a good time at Studio 54.

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