When a film opens with few if any press screenings, it is generally
a bad sign. One of the summer's most eagerly anticipated movies, 54,
the debut feature of Columbia grad Mark Christopher, suffered that fate
— and worse. There has already been much reportage about the negative
reactions by preview audiences to homoerotic content and to the lead
character who was depicted as a hustler who would do anything (or
anyone) to get ahead in the glitzy showbiz world embodied by the
Manhattan discotheque. Christopher was forced to cut his film severely,
necessitating the shooting of entirely new footage which was meant
to soften several of the characters and play up a romance between the
lead (played by Ryan Phillippe) and an ambitious soap opera actress
(Neve Campbell). The result is a film that feels both truncated and
cobbled together—a mishmash that has flashes of brilliance punctuated
by leaden scenes. In the rare instances when the film does work, it soars,
but just as it is attaining altitude, it crashes. It's a shame because
Christopher clearly has talent but the new footage and the revised
storyline invalidates his vision and leaves most of the actors stranded.
There is little consistency to the characters. In one scene they are
ambitious and willing to do anything while others they drop their desires
and are made to appear "heroic".
From what I've read and heard from insiders who were involved
with the film, Christopher originally envisioned a world populated with
denizens that represented the "Me Decade" in spades. Men and women
who were will to hustle and back-stab and cheat and lie to get ahead.
Granted it may be difficult to invoke audience sympathies with such
characters but given the era in which the film was set, it could have
worked. The late 1970s saw the rise of disco and its culture of high
fashion, fast-living, ambi-sexuality and drug-taking which was a direct
reaction to the stagnant economy and world malaise. This was time
when Jimmy Carter was president, there were gas shortages and Iran
was holding Americans hostage. The late 70s were also the culmination
of a hedonism that had begun a decade prior with Woodstock and the
anti-war movement. It was a free-for-all time and the music was upbeat
and danceable. The epitome of the disco world was Studio 54 in Manhattan.
Sure there were other discotheques (Regine's, Xenon) but Studio 54 was
the top-of-the-line. Anyone who was anyone was there. The film
attempts to recreate that scene but does it carefully, only showing the
now deceased famous habitues (Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Halston)
as opposed to those still living (Brooke Shields, Carmen D'Allesio and
Liza Minnelli to name a few; although denizens like Michael York,
Sela Ward and Lauren Hutton do appear in small roles). It's also
important to note that only one of the clubs famous owners — the
late Steve Rubell — is portrayed. There is no mention of co-owner
Ian Schrager. Portraying living persons is dicey; you can't libel the
Christopher made his name with two gay-themed short films so
it is incredible that 54 had its homosexual content watered down.
Reportedly preview audiences objected to a same-sex kiss and
nervous executives insisted it be excised from the final cut. Well, duh!
The only time preview audiences ever react positively to a male-male
kiss is when it's played for laughs (i.e., IN & OUT, BASEKETBALL).
It's appalling that Miramax, the company behind such films as
THE CRYING GAME and CHASING AMY, would seemingly force a
director to excise gay content in favor of playing up a heterosexual
romance. The material that was shot in late spring 1998 sticks out
in the final film. It is poorly acted by both Phillippe and Neve Campbell.
There is little chemistry between them and their romance seems
forced and misguided. In the butchering of the film, other characters
like a coat-check girl with aspirations to be a singer (played by
Salma Hayek) and her busboy husband (Breckin Meyer) have been
Given the cutting and reshooting, it is difficult to comment on
the performances. Phillippe's character is now a lower-class kid with
big dreams and a conscience. A female character describes him as
having "a body by Michelangelo with the face of a Botticelli."
Unfortunately, Phillippe's ripped physique is what passes for
character. There are glimpses of what Christopher was going for as
his bartender becomes "Shane 54", posing for Interview magazine
and becoming known on the circuit. If we had seen how he
was corrupted by this, there might have been the makings of a
good story. Instead, we get watered-down pablum, the cliché of
a basically good kid who learns a lesson. Of the remaining cast,
a few manage to make an impression. Ellen Albertini Dow, the
rapping granny from THE WEDDING SINGER is a hoot as the
coke-snorting, foul-mouthed Disco Dottie. Sherry Stringfield who
left ER is virtually unrecognizable as the club's blonde accountant
complete with Jersey accent. She makes the most of her two small
scenes. Only Mike Myers as Steve Rubell manages to give
something resembling a full-bodied characterization. Those who
knew the real Rubell may quibble over the interpretation, but at
least Myers has something to play. Under heavy makeup and wig,
he manages to deliver a strong turn, at once nerdy and pleading,
then paranoid and snappish. He's as memorable as one can be
given the situation.
Knowing that the film is missing over 30 minutes of footage
helps to explain the seeming lack of music. There is a two-disc
soundtrack that has been issued but few of the cuts are in the
finished film. I'll cut some slack for Christopher as this is not the
film he set out to make. The production design gets the details
the right, the costumes are as ugly as the fashions of the era and
the music that did make it into the movie is okay, but hardly
memorable. I didn't hate the film; there were moments that made
me laugh and smile with nostalgia but there were also times when
I cringed at the insipid acting and clunky dialogue. The disco era
may be a ripe subject for a feature film, but unfortunately, 54 isn't
it. My wish is for Mark Christopher to become a huge success with
other projects so he can one day issue a director's cut of 54. Then
we can judge it for what it was meant to be.
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.