'54' is not a great disco number Review: Story of the stylish and frenzied disco has neither style nor much action on the screen.

August 28, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

It's understandable that Studio 54 would inspire a spate of books and movies. The legendary New York nightclub came to define the excesses, self-indulgence, self-destruction and, yes, the fun of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Populated by movie stars, models and now-forgotten glitterati, all of whom throbbed in a drug-induced paroxysm of ecstasy to an infectious disco beat, the super-boite of the Me Decade is ideal fodder for a movie.

"54" is not that movie. "Boogie Nights" was more audaciously stylish; Whit Stillman's "The Last Days of Disco" had more heart. "Goodfellas" had more authenticity, and "Midnight Cowboy," whose seedy Bildungsroman "54" wants to imitate, had more integrity. What's more, those films had central characters an audience could root for, albeit at a safe distance. Lacking style and substance -- not to mention compelling characters and a good story -- "54" is an oddly inert attempt to portray one of pop culture's most manic eras.

The best thing about the movie is Mike Myers, the former "Saturday Night Live" comedian who has tackled his first dramatic role as Steve Rubell. Rubell, a former steakhouse owner who opened Studio 54 in 1977, wanted his nightclub to be the ultimate party, a place where an Arabian prince would fly 7,000 miles to surround himself with the world's most beautiful people and where plumbers danced with princes.

"The old labels and prejudices don't apply anymore," Rubell says at one point. Moments later, his speech hopelessly slurred by Quaaludes, he pukes into a wad of cash. Luring his customers with promises of copious drugs, booze and shoulder-rubbing with the rich and famous, Rubell was indeed the ultimate pluralist, a true meritocrat for whom merit equaled good cheekbones, killer pectorals and strong nasal passages.

Unfortunately, Rubell is a minor character in "54," the feature-film debut of writer-director Mark Christopher. Instead of following Rubell's rise and fall (he was arrested for tax evasion in 1980 and died nine years later), Christopher has invented Shane O'Shea (Ryan Phillippe), a New Jersey teen-ager who becomes a busboy at 54 after Rubell gets a load of his perfectly formed torso.

At the club, Shane meets the friends who would become his disco family: Greg and Anita (Breckin Meyer and Salma Hayek), the imperious soap star Julie Black (Neve Campbell) and a bevy of oddballs meant to evoke such famous 54 patrons as Truman Capote, Halston, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli.

Unlike the heartbreaking group at the center of "Boogie Nights," Christopher's gang and their exploits take on a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland feel: Will Greg be promoted to bartender without having to service Rubell sexually? Will Anita get her big singing break? Will Shane actually get to meet Princess Grace, the idol of his little sister (a woefully underused Heather Matarazzo)?

While these questions of absolutely no consequence are being answered, Myers' Rubell hovers in the background, sneering out his fey laugh, his eyes invisible under lids swollen by seeing his dreams realized. Rubell remains unplumbed by the end of "54," despite Myers' admirable performance. He doesn't really come into focus until the movie's closing credits, which show the real man in snapshots with the club's denizens (there's Mick Jagger and Valerie Perrine!). Even then, Rubell is a frustratingly blurry figure.


Starring Mike Myers, Ryan Phillippe, Neve Campbell

Directed by Mark Christopher

Released by Miramax Films

Rated R (sexuality, drug use and language)

Running time: 89 minutes

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 8/28/98

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