Barely Staying Alive

54's version of "Disco Inferno" is more like heck than Hell

Shane, the teenage hero of Mark Christopher's 54, wears the petulant expression of a Raphaelite cherub, and he comes complete with a halo of curly blond hair. He's played by a pretty newcomer with the exotic name of Ryan Phillippe, but there's nothing exotic about the voice that comes out of him--whether by nature or by acting, it's convincing Jersey. Looking across the river at the Manhattan skyline in the late '70s, he thinks he's looking at El Dorado. And in his case, he's right.

When Shane reads in the papers about the beautiful people who frequent Steve Rubell's and Ian Schrager's Studio 54, he dreams of mingling with them. One night he persuades his friends--by suggesting that they might see Olivia Newton-John--to drive there and try to get in. His friends are turned away, but owner-manager Rubell (Mike Myers) gives Shane the green light. Once he's in, he's all the way in; within a few scenes, he becomes a busboy, and before long he's a favorite of the trendy set.

In his recent The Last Days of Disco, Whit Stillman took just about the nuttiest and most daring approach imaginable to the subject--an intellectual approach. His characters sat around a disco, plainly based on 54, and jawed about the sociological significance of the disco movement. There was sex, and there were drugs, and there was a little tax evasion, but none of these vulgarities were where the movie's heart seemed to be--Stillman's characters didn't even dance all that much. They just talked, talked, talked, as if talking in a disco were even possible.

Dealing with the same place, period and incidents, the young writer-director Christopher is a lot less eccentric than Stillman, and so 54 came out a lot less original than The Last Days of Disco, and, potentially, a lot more profitable. It's just a conventional Horatio Alger rags-to-riches tale, with no sense of irony or perspective. When Shane is allowed to pass the club's doors--after Rubell has him take off his shirt--we're left with no doubt that he's entered hallowed ground. But even Moses only had to take off his shoes.

What Shane sees inside is supposed to be a middle-class vision of the Elysian Fields. Drugs flow freely, a couple has sex openly, celebrities like Truman Capote and Andy Warhol are everywhere. Christopher means for this to wow us; he's thoroughly bought into the image of 54 as a seductive paradise. If the ghost of the late Rubell, who died in 1989, can somehow see the film, he's probably smiling--no doubt this is just the sort of legendary awe he hoped he'd inspire in us unsophisticated rubes. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Christopher got it right.

Besides, what we see just doesn't have the glamour it's meant to. What's fascinating is how quaint and square this milieu seems. The problem is the timidity of the directing. The ostensibly wild-'n'-crazy scenes are, in terms of shock, about on the level of The Orgy of the Golden Calf in De Mille's The Ten Commandments--if I may be allowed another Exodus reference--that is, they don't seem like much more than a good, rowdy party.

The timidity extends to the plot, most of which is fictitious, with the IRS troubles that landed Rubell in jail in the '80s treated as a background subplot (Schrager, who's still alive to sue, is glossed over). For instance, Rubell offers both Shane and his friend (Breckin Meyer) chances at advancement in return for sex. Both are straight, and both bolt. That doesn't seem as potentially dramatic as the alternative, but it does seem commercially canny--it's less likely to upset the mainstream audiences this film is hoping for.

54 is poky and banal and slovenly; if it were a clubber waiting outside 54, it wouldn't get picked. But it isn't awful to sit through--the actors save it.

Phillippe is very likable, in his Candide-ish role. His scenes with Neve Campbell, as the soap-opera actress he has a crush on, go nowhere, but it's neither performer's fault; the writing here is hopeless. Phillippe's work with Salma Hayek, as the coat-check girl and aspiring diva who befriends him, have a warm sense of intimacy, and he also does well opposite Heather Matarazzo of Welcome to the Dollhouse, as his adoring, but much smarter, young sister. His best scene, though, is early on: Standing on the dance floor for the first time, he lets out an enthusiastic whoop at the performer onstage (the soundtrack music is surprisingly tolerable, even for discophobes), sees the eye-rolling reaction among those around him, and quickly inhibits himself. He's a fast learner.

Lauren Hutton and Michael York, among others, contribute enjoyable minor roles, and Sela Ward--who, as a young model, was a 54 regular--is effective as a music exec who takes Shane and the coat-check girl under her wing. The film's real saving grace, however--the only remotely pressing reason to see it--is Mike Myers' turn as the ex-steak-house manager Rubell.

There's something essentially charming about this lordly, sometimes mean-spirited jerk-schmoozer. When he sentimentally tells the crowd on the dance floor that he loves them, you can see that he means it absolutely--at that moment. You can see what this club and its clientele mean to him, how they make him feel invincible.

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