'Metropolitan' chronicles that rare and rich society

September 14, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The rich, said Scott Fitzgerald, are very different from you and me.Yes, said Ernest Hemingway, they have more money.

And, says Whit Stillman, they are more interesting.

Stillman proves his point in "Metropolitan," a vivid and absorbing portrait of a set of bright young things in search of a drama during the confines of a single social season in the Big Apple.

Stillman, a 38-year-old veteran of this scene, chronicles it in a way no outsider ever could, and with a much more understanding, even loving, heart. That gives the movie its sweet tone, as well as its sense of gentle comedy; it's not an angry reformer's piece advising us to eat the rich. Rather, it insists, against all odds, that they are human too.

The movie watches as a poor boy, Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), finds himself drawn into a circle of wealthy debs and their "escorts." Tom, the depressed son of recently divorced parents, is home from Harvard over Christmas and at loose ends, socially as well as emotionally. He is of course prepared to despise these glittering creatures, for as an ardent if somewhat naive "socialist" he knows that a permanent state of class warfare exists between his ideals and them.

And yet they are ... so attractive. They are so lively. The mentor of the group is Nick Smith (Christopher Eigeman), a high priest of cynicism, with a glib opinion on everything and easy, smooth ways. Quickly becoming Tom's informal coach on matters of tradition, Nick guides bewildered but wide-eyed Tom through the bogs and sucking pools of what remains of "society" in New York.

But Nick, like his friends Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) and Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), proves surprisingly substantial. The secret pleasure of the film is Stillman's sense of character and morality. These children of the rich are far from bored decadents; they have intellectual and moral lives. They endlessly ponder their place in the scheme of things and their own fates in a changing world. They also have a sense of good behavior which they are constantly refining, as they try to grope their way toward adulthood.

Thus the film, which seems as if it should be about seduction, is really about redemption. It's about how Tom, rather than being ruined and abandoned by his rich courters, is instead matured by them; how his values, redefined, become richer -- he comes to stop mourning his own wretched family life and to care for his friends.

The center of the film, and the center of this process, is the relationship between Tom and Audrey. Again, it's a surprise; they don't thunder off to the sack like so many, but endure a timid, halting, consistently redefining relationship. And, egad, they even pause to talk about books and literary critics.

But it's also true that in this glittery world, beasts move. There's the repulsive Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), who's handsome and amoral and particularly offensive to the refined and stubborn Nick. And on the female side, there's Serena Slocum (Elizabeth Thompson), beautiful and vampy, who likes to amuse herself by dating dozens of boys and making each one think he's the only one. Tom is a veteran of this war and still smarts when he discovers that Serena has amused her friends by reading his letters aloud.

"Metropolitan" is the rare American movie about society in both senses of that word -- it's about the byways of the wealthy, yes; but it's also about people trying to make their way in a complex world, without hurting other people. That's the society we should all belong to.

'Metropolitan'

Starring Edward Clements and Carolyn Farina.

Directed by Whit Stillman.

Released by New Line.

Rated PG-13.

*** 1/2

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