Years from now, if Mark Christopher's timid, meandering film ``54' is spoken of at all, it will probably be lumped together with Whit Stillman's ``Last Days of Disco' as one of two movies released in 1998 to bungle the same opportunity. Both films, while purporting to examine New York City's voracious late-1970s disco culture, adopt a primly distanced attitude toward a moment, just before the AIDS epidemic struck, when voluptuous hedonism became a kind of mass hysteria. Sex, drugs and disco: you couldn't ask for a juicier mix. But when it comes to squeezing juice, both movies come up dry.
Christopher's film is an informal history of Studio 54, the disco culture's ultimate pleasure dome and celebrity hangout, a kind of floating Andy Warhol party whose glory days ended abruptly when the place was raided by the Internal Revenue Service. Unable to decide if it's a retrospective expose, a ``Saturday Night Live' spoof or a ``Saturday Night Fever' retread, ``54' ends up a confused mishmash of all of the above. You see garbage bags filled with cash, a lot of avid cocaine snorting and fleeting glimpses of Warhol and Truman Capote, but it all feels ho-hum.While the production notes for ``54' list an impressive roster of vintage disco hits on the soundtrack, hardly any of them seem to have made it into the actual movie, which feels strangely truncated, both musically and dramatically. How could a movie about the king of all discos not include a single note of music from the era's two reigning disco queens, Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor? Even in its abbreviated dance-floor scenes, ``54' never surrenders to the beat. The film provides only scattered intimations of the tribal ecstasy, the beat-driven synergy of light, sound, drug-enhanced eroticism and the giddy narcissistic euphoria of imagining yourself at the center of the world, which was the essence of the Studio 54 experience.
The disco scenes in Stillman's movie are set in a fictional club that suggests a sedate hybrid of Studio 54 and its arch-rival, Xenon. Although ``The Last Days of Disco' has a fuller, more richly nostalgic soundtrack, the music serves only as an unobtrusive nostalgic backdrop for another one of Stillman's articulate comedies of New York WASP manners. The director conveniently forgot that the decibel levels in those clubs were much too high to allow his characters to carry on their witty analytical dialogues in anything less than a shout.
The strongest element of ``54' is its star Ryan Phillippe, whose character, Shane O'Shea, sporadically narrates the movie. An ambitious 19-year-old nobody from Jersey City, Shane drives into Manhattan one night with a bunch of friends and finds himself the only member of his party selected for entrance into the magic kingdom presided over by the club's gay social director, Steve Rubell (Mike Myers). But before being allowed in, Shane is told he must take off his shirt. He obliges happily and displays what one admiring woman who later takes him to bed describes as the body of Michelangelo's ``David' attached to a Botticelli face.
Ascending from busboy to bartender, Shane becomes one of the club's in-house stars who at the height of his glory drives around in a car with personalized license plates. The movie pussyfoots around Shane's rapid ascent. If it were honest, it would be the story of how a handsome working-class boy, upon discovering his sexual market value, calculatedly hustles his way up the pecking order and eventually gets carried away with his ``stardom.'
After his inevitable comeuppance and exile from the magic kingdom, he emerges chastened. But the movie barely hints at Shane's embrace of a self-promoting bisexuality, and the outcome of a crucial scene in which Rubell puts the moves on him is left ambiguous. Phillippe, however, skillfully captures Shane's metamorphosis from working-class innocent into a vain, self-deluded demi-celebrity.
The movie's most pungent moments suggest the darker side of the convergence of exploitation and snobbery that Shane's kind of stardom entails. Whisked off to a fancy Park Avenue party, he finds himself the butt of sly, condescending humor. Told he's a troglodyte, he initially accepts it as a compliment, not knowing what the word means.
Shane is given a tepid love interest, a soap-opera star named Julie Black (Neve Campbell), who also turns out to be from New Jersey and who is also trying to hustle her career into high gear. But Phillippe and Campbell don't click together, mostly because of Campbell's hopelessly insipid acting.
As Rubell, who calibrated Studio 54's nightly chemistry of celebrities, pretty boys, models, moguls and colorful eccentrics, Myers turns in a skin-deep caricature that is only a half-step away from a comic spoof. Although there is real pathos in the story of a Brooklyn entrepreneur who suddenly finds himself a New York social arbiter with all the money, drugs and boys he could possibly want at his fingertips, Myers plays Rubell as a groggy, grinning casualty of his own success. Rubell's charm, energy, ferocity and desperate eagerness to belong are missing.
The movie might have worked had it decided which story it wanted to tell and stuck to its guns. But instead of exploring the hearts and souls of its urban dreamers, it feels like a crudely patched-together collection of notes for a project that got lost on the cutting-room floor.
BY STEPHEN HOLDENNew York Times News Service