When I got out of a screening here in Toronto for "Damsels in Distress," the new film from writer-director Whit Stillman -- and his first in 13 years -- a colleague asked what I thought of it.
"Oh, it's just like all his others," I replied.
"Is that a good thing?"
That's a good question.
Sort of the Terrence Malick of chronicling young upper-crust New York life, Stillman has made all of four films in the last two decades. His first, "Metropolitan," came out in 1990 and reportedly took him four years to write, which might seem strange for a movie just filled with scenes of affluent kids sitting around exchanging witty banter and occasionally falling in love. "I don't think a script is very authentic until I've thought about it and gone over it a few times," Stillman told Filmmaker a few years ago. "For me, time is the biggest luxury."
And so we had to wait four years for "Barcelona" and then another four years for "Last Days of Disco." Then Stillman wrote a novel based on "Last Days of Disco." And then nothing. Well, not nothing -- just nothing that we ever saw. As he explained to New York magazine last year, he became a writer for hire. "I got TV deals to write stuff, film deals to write stuff," Stillman said. "But it's dangerous. I got into the WGA and I became kind of, you know, a slave! They just pay you to write a script, and it's hard to make the movies."
But now he's back with "Damsels in Distress," a college comedy that features young people around the same age as the yuppies of "Metropolitan." Stillman will turn 60 in January. He gets older, but the characters he seems interested in stay the same age.
Like "Metropolitan," "Damsels in Distress" concerns a cliquish group of friends whose favorite hobby seems to be judging others and occasionally one another. Also like "Metropolitan," the movie gets moving once an outsider (in this case, Lily, played by Analeigh Tipton, the babysitter in "Crazy, Stupid, Love.") enters the group, changing its dynamics. Greta Gerwig plays Violet, the leader of this gaggle of young women who spend time working at a suicide prevention center -- it mostly makes them feel better about themselves -- and in classic Stillman tradition she's a know-it-all who will slowly learn how little she knows about anything.
For those who love Stillman's purposely formal, somewhat arch dialogue, "Damsels in Distress" will be a constant treat. The time away from filmmaking has done nothing to dull his skill in that regard. Unfortunately, what also comes across is that he hasn't necessarily advanced much as a filmmaker either. Considering that "Metropolitan" is his best film, you could argue that he nailed his aesthetic just the way he wanted to the first time -- and that everything since then has been a riff or variation on what worked so well in his debut. It's certainly nice to have Stillman back, but with "Damsels" he's just redoing all the amusing, wry bits from his earlier films. It's just like his other films, for better or worse.