★★★★ / ★★★★
While three friends are on their way to a party, Nick (Chris Eigeman) mistakes Tom (Edward Clements), standing next to a taxi, as one of the guests and insists that they all share a transport. Nick takes an immediate liking to Tom because something about him feels exciting. But Tom is not like Nick and his boarding school friends whose families live in New York City’s Upper West Side. Although he is dressed in a fancy suit, a rental, his parents had gotten a divorce and his father took all the money with him, leaving him and his mother on a budget. As a result of the divorce, he feels almost repulsed by the upper-class social scene. Gradually, however, he is drawn to it.
“Metropolitan,” written, directed, and produced by Whit Stillman, is a savagely funny portrait of very educated, wealthy, and self-absorbed young people. It is admirable that although the material pokes fun of them, it is apparent that the writer-director holds a level of affection for his subjects. Instead of treating them as mere targets of ridicule in order to construct a satirical comedy of manners, he gives them depth during unexpected moments even if it seems too late into the picture for us to revise our opinion of a person.
The first part has an air of predictability in the way Tom is seduced into the world urban haute bourgeoisie. Tom meets a person, they converse, they agree or challenge one another, and a tenuous mutual respect is established. It feels formulaic but the film does not stay rooted in this technique for long. As the protagonist grows comfortable with the types of personalities within the group, the material veers away from Tom to give us good reasons why the outsider wants to know more about his newfound friends. Some of them are as insufferable as our first impression but at least an attempt is made for us to be able to give a fair evaluation. But even the more unlikeable ones have the ability to surprise.
The college students discuss a pool of subjects, from social mobility and Marxism to literature and rules of courtship. There are subtle but important distinctions between conversations that occur as a group versus one-one-one. In groups, the intellect is at the forefront which consistently lead to fiery disagreements and name calling. When words are exchanged between two people, although there may be dissent toward views being expressed, the speaker and listener take a more sensitive approach. There is less competition; the mentality of one having to be right therefore the other having to be wrong is downplayed in order to make room for connections that feel true. There is an understanding that what these people have in common is more than money or habitat. They are drawn to one another because they challenge each other’s perspectives and expectations.
It is easy to dislike the subjects because they command jargon that many might find esoteric or pretentious. Admittedly, at times I was vexed with their unwillingness to let go of the pleasantries and simply express unveiled anger or frustration. But perhaps that is the point. These young men and women are so intelligent when it comes to books and ideas but they do not seem to have an emotional compass or a semblance of common sense. It made some me think of friends who are ace on paper but sadly do not have the skills necessary to function or flourish outside of academia.
If there is a great reminder in “Metropolitan,” it is that there is ignorance in all of us. It does not matter if one barely graduated high school or if one achieves the highest education in the most prestigious university. Some are just better at hiding it than others.