When is a comedy not a comedy? The line is often blurred; for example, Alexander Payne has made a career out of films that, while not comedies on the surface, successfully merge dramatic with comedic elements to impressive effect. Whit Stillman’s fourth feature – a tale of teenage depression, angst and love set at an American university – makes the distinction abundantly clear. Comedy is not comedy when it’s so far from funny you wonder if somebody clicked the wrong button when categorising the script.
“Oh for an admin error,” I mused, as it dawned on me that the above thought was entirely frivolous. Damsels in Distress tries so very hard to be funny, but any ‘jokes’ there may have been in the original script are buried so deeply under a smug, twee, kitsch sensibility that they’ve long since suffocated. Though, I doubt Stillman ever really gave much thought to being humorous, the insufferable, endless monologues are all about appearing clever – lines delivered at breakneck speed, robotically, with all the wit and charisma of somebody reading a script out loud, it’s not remotely believable.
If I sound critical of the cast I may be being a touch harsh. Greta Gerwig has energy and presence but is hampered by the fact that her character is completely overwritten from start to finish. Analeigh Tipton is awkward, never appearing to know where to direct her gaze during any of her scenes. Megalyn Echikunwoke and Carrie MacLemore are thoroughly annoying peripheral characters – the former had only one line that I can recall, “He’s an operaTOR.” As you can probably imagine, that catchphrase wears thin by the fifth, maybe fourth, time it’s delivered. That Guy From The OC is also in it, playing That Guy From The OC.
The production is thoroughly and perplexingly amateurish; irrelevant shots of the sky are interspersed amongst numerous oddities: loses of focus, sound problems, an over-reliance on a soft focus filter that only furthers the tweeness of it all. In fact, I’m struggling to unearth any redeeming features. It rarely moves at a consistent pace, dropping characters from the limelight and then picking them back up in the blink of an eye. It never really has a point either, tangentially exploring one idea and then jettisoning it for something else. It’s frustrating, pretentious and ultimately difficult to watch. Real horror show.