Damsels in Distress navel-gazes at an artificial college experience 

Girls Will Be Girls

Whit Stillman's flowery, absurd Damsels in Distress substitutes Animal House's crude frat boys for priss-pot coeds in this too-cute-for-school, obnoxious evocation of a make-believe college life. The damsels in question are all named for flowers, because girls are so, well, flowery. Block-of-wood indie queen Greta Gerwig is all square shoulders and flatline delivery as the bossypants Violet, the queen bee in a hive of girliness dedicated to rooting out bad smells and suicidal depression from their private Seven Oaks College. The slightly dim brunette Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and the elegant African-American girl Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who has come back from a London trip with an affected British accent and a conviction that all men are "playboys and operators," round out this coterie of Lanz nightgowns and proper enunciation. The girls live in a cozy dorm room where they curl their hair and apply mascara like 1950s coeds working toward their MRS degrees.

This girl gang in Anne Klein separates operates a quaintly Victorian suicide intervention club at Seven Oaks whose remedy for depression is free doughnuts, tap dancing, and Violet's passive-aggressive line of questioning. In addition to rooting out depression, the girls are committed to ridding their campus of smelly undergrads who lack the consideration to groom accordingly. Their social mission also includes taking hapless frat boys like Thor — a guy so dumb he never learned his colors — under their wing. Like the crusading women's groups of history who campaigned for causes like the vote or birth control, Stillman substitutes the idea of do-gooder upper-class ladies with these robotic trophy-wives-in-training with cotton between the ears and nothing more on their minds than finding the perfect smelling soap. The not-too-pleasant assumption behind Stillman's farcical delivery is the empty-headedness of contemporary coeds solely focused on sweater sets and stinkiness. They wrinkle their noses in disgust when a swarm of men pass, their delicate sensibilities offended by such abject humaneness. The men in Damsels tend to be far more appealing fun-loving dolts, an Archie Comics corollary to the impossible-to-identify-with women who have the perfect manners and clipped diction of children practicing for cotillion and trying on a sense of morality like a pair of white gloves.

Into this state of affairs comes transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a dewy, wide-eyed boy magnet who seems shipped in from reality to this cartoon campus. Lily becomes involved with a French foreign exchange student, Xavier (Hugo Becker), who has convinced her he's part of a religious sect founded on sodomy (those French!), a strange insertion of contemporary gutter-trawling into a film that usually strives for a tone somewhere between Nancy Drew and Edith Wharton. Stillman's comic crux seems to be inserting an antediluvian, almost Victorian moral standard into the moral free-for-all of college, a juxtaposition that is as tedious as it is artificial. It's a world utterly and intentionally cut off from any recognizable contemporary reality where the Occupy movement, Al Qaeda, or a presidential election might exist. Instead, the greatest horror Stillman conjures up is a romantic break-up.

There's a supposedly charming subplot in which Violet becomes possessed with the idea of starting a new dance craze a la the Charleston or the Twist. It's more of a chance for Stillman to insert his own obsession with charmingly antiquated American culture than it is a salient plot point. Though, truth be told, just about anything goes in this film's see-if-it-sticks illogic.

Slight to the point of banality, Damsels in Distress is a fey stab at screwball that comes off as mind-numbingly precious and dull as dirt. Is this really the movie a 60-year-old preppy who should be playing golf decides to entertain himself with after a 13-year hiatus? Clearly still convinced that his college days were the best years of his life, Stillman traffics in the same stunted, adolescent imagination as the Gidget movies and offers the unpleasant, deeply unflattering sight of a grown man moony over the springtime loveliness of girls less than half his age. It's like a creepy uncle rubbernecking on the activities of kids.

Stillman's schtick has always been a WASP form of Woody Allen-style navel-gazing, but in Damsels in Distress, that's morphed into a boundless and irritating self-regard. Convinced of its own cleverness despite being teeth-grindingly insipid, Stillman's characters are more propositions than people, and it is hard to tolerate such constructs without the force of a message or agenda behind their maddening behavior.

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