When Lily (Analeigh Tipton) transfers to scenic Seven Oaks three strange but charismatic young women approach her like a girl gang in matching sweater sets. Although Lily doesn't need help with her wardrobe or men Violet (Greta Gerwig) Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) recruit her to live with them hang out with them and join them in their efforts to thwart the school's "atmosphere of male barbarism." It's not actually barbaric; it's a fairly normal upper class liberal arts college but to these girls one of whom has such delicate nostrils that she freaks out at the slightest hint of BO we'd be much better off returning to an classier era. Seven Oaks which used to be a women-only campus is a veiled reference to the Seven Sisters colleges some of which like Vassar have gone coed.
With Violet as a slightly awkward ringleader the trio has very strict ideas of what's proper and what's not what kind of behaviors lead to depression and general uncleanliness and what will most enhance each person's happiness. They set out to do this by avoiding handsome men and going for fixer-uppers and offering depressed students tap dancing classes and fresh-smelling soap. However even though Violet's biggest dream is to kick off "an international dance craze " something she assumes will benefit many people on a wider scale than their college-level suicide interventions they all seem sort of depressed. Is it anthropological curiosity that motivates Lily the loneliness of a new school or as with the audience the sort of weird charm shot through sadness that Violet possesses?
Fans of Whit Stillman's talky thinky upper crust movies are overjoyed that the writer/director has returned after 14 years but what will about newbies? Damsels in Distress is somewhat perplexing; there are a few too many characters and subplots that are introduced and then dropped like the young woman whom the gals take in briefly after a suicide attempt. The film brings up questions about identity the ways we lie to ourselves but leaves them dangling. We're given details about who Violet really is in an insightful and startling subplot that could have given the movie a slightly weightier tone but then it shifts back into Stillman territory. To be fair that's why we're watching in Damsels to begin with; the random excursions into the outside world of actual mental illness heartbreak and financial or personal struggle have no real place in Stillman's lovely bubble. In the end it's not clear if there's some greater thrust to the movie some sort of lesson that the protagonists and viewer should be taking away from it all but if we're allowed to turn off our brains for mindless action fodder and enjoy it why not do the same for hyper-literate modern dandies in a world of dance classes and sunny college campuses?
It's also buoyed by a strong cast led by Greta Gerwig and Analeigh Tipton with enjoyable performances by Echikunwoke and would-be suitor Adam Brody as well as excellent costumes that combine the modern look of liberal arts colleges with the perfectly preppy wardrobe of the three girls and occasional dance numbers. Small touches like Audrey Plaza as a wild-eyed and -haired tap dance student referred to as "Depressed Debbie " Gerwig's stoic face even when referring to her breakdown as being "in a tailspin " and a sight gag here and there serve to remind us that Stillman and his team aren't fumbling in the dark here; they're perfectly aware of how enjoyably goofy Damsels is. It's no accident that their college offers a class called "The Dandy Tradition in Literature" that focuses its studies on Evelyn Waugh and others as obsessed with the leisure class as Stillman.
As dean of a small college Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) has made a nice life for himself--until a false accusation of racism ruins his career and he loses his wife to a brain aneurysm. Suddenly Coleman has nothing--until he embarks on an intensely sexual relationship with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman) a local woman with an abusive ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris) who won't leave her alone. The intensity of Coleman's love for Faunia leads him to reveal his long-held secret: He has been passing himself off as Jewish and white for most of his adult life but in reality he is a light-skinned African-American. From there a series of flashbacks to the 1940s introduce us to a younger love-struck Coleman (Wentworth Miller) and reveal the events that led him to his fateful decision. Somehow Coleman's deep dark secret isn't as shocking as it's probably meant to be but the relationship between Faunia and Coleman is--especially when it slips into the danger zone with Lester breathing down their necks.
Wentworth Miller who makes his film debut as the younger Coleman does an amazing job with his role establishing Coleman's quiet yet fierce determination to live a life free of intolerance. And as ever Hopkins is the consummate professional with flashes of intense passion and brilliance in his steely eyes. One does have to get over the fact that a Welsh actor has been cast as an elderly light-skinned African-American but if Hopkins can give nuance to a declaration of how Viagra has changed his character's life (ick) he can pull off the race thing easily enough. Kidman as the dour Faunia also has some stunning moments easily sinking to the depressive depths required of her character--not surprising considering she won the Oscar doing the same thing in The Hours. What really makes you clench your teeth though is when the two of them get together on screen--in the biblical sense. These Oscar winners are so sorely miscast as tortured lovebirds that their sexual moments make you squirm in your seat. It's not the age difference; there's simply no spark between them.
"We leave a stain a trail and imprint " Philip Roth writes in his novel the third in a trilogy on postwar America. "It's the only way to be here." The author goes on to explore myriad themes around this main premise including how we leave our marks how our decisions have consequences and how people can find one another under the direst circumstances. Unfortunately these big ideas get lost in translation on the big screen and the film suffers from adaptation blues. Director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer gives Roth's ideas voice only through Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) the reclusive author Coleman asks to write his life story and even that artistic character talks more about how sex is clouding Coleman's judgment than about his own life or ideology. Ultimately Meyer focuses his script too heavily on the guarded Coleman leaving the other characters too little developed. Why has Nathan secluded himself away from the world? What haunts him? Sinise does what he can with the character but there's too little background. The same goes for Faunia. Although she describes in one monologue after another the horrors of her life--she was abused as a girl and lost her two children in a terrible fire--Faunia's hardships seem distant and it's hard to connect with her character. Only the wounded Lester a Vietnam veteran seems made of real emotions and desires--he's filled with hatred and passion--and if he makes only a brief appearance in the film he certainly leaves a mark.