MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Ryan Phillippe (Shane O'Shea), Mike Myers (Steve Rubell), Neve Campbell (Julie Black), Salma Hayek (Anita), Breckin Meyer (Greg), Sela Ward (Bianca Jagger), Heather Matarazzo (Grace), Jared Harris (Andy Warhol)
During the credits at the end of "54," half the screen is filled with photographs of actual people partying at the infamous Manhattan disco club Studio 54 during the late seventies. Pictures of Andy Warhol, Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, and, of course, Steve Rubell, the owner of Studio 54 who wanted to throw a party that would last a lifetime. What's unfortunate and telling about these still photographs is the fact that they are more interesting and absorbing than the live-action movie that preceded them.
There's a great movie to be made about Studio 54, but this is not it. Writer/director Mark Christopher botches it from the get-go because he insists on using the club scene as a glorified backdrop to tell the story of a naive, twentysomething protagonist named Shane O'Shea. Shane is played by Ryan Phillipe ("I Know What You Did Last Summer"), and although he is a handsome actor with a hint of potential, he has nowhere near the weight and presence needed to hold the center of this film. His coming-of-age story amid the glitter, glamour, drugs, and chaos of the Studio 54 world is meant to be touching and worldly, but it's more hackneyed than anything else. Some of it has to do with Phillipe's lack of screen presence, but I think more of it has to do with Christopher's choice to sacrifice the reality for a mediocre-at-best fictional story.
Constantly gliding through the movie is comedian Mike Myers, who plays Rubell. This is Myer's first dramatic performance after numerous straight comedies like "Wayne's World" (1991) and "Austin Powers" (1997). Playing this role was a risky move, but it turns out that he is the best thing in the movie. Myers has made his living being a comedic chameleon--his humor emanates from his ability to disappear completely into his characters. He doesn't merely portray Austin Powers--he is Austin Powers. And here he does exactly the same thing, altering his physical appearance, speech, and mannerisms to appropriate Rubell's unforgettable persona.
So the question is, why did Christopher not make Rubell the center of the story? After all, he is a far more interesting character than the shallow, bare-chested Shane. For instance, how did Rubell, a short, balding nerd with an annoying laugh, become the king of celebrities? What was involved in his ironic rise to that pinnacle of power, where he would stand in the DJ booth above the dance floor and have world-famous celebrities like Mick Jagger, Truman Capote, and Princess Grace of Monacco hanging on his every word? Was it is his insecurity about his own meager appearance that drove him to stand by the door of Studio 54, only allowing in those people who he deemed physically attractive enough to gain entrance? How did he come to be so obsessed with style? This is, after all, a man who, when being dragged out of the club in handcuffs after being arrested by IRS for tax evasion, could only say, "This is so tacky."
"54" suffers not only because it chose the wrong material, but because it doesn't execute its chosen material well. It has no real drive or focus, and it certainly doesn't have a message. It would seem that this kind of tawdry subject matter is perfect for crafting a film with moral resonance, but there is none to be found; it's as if Christopher took "Boogie Nights" (1997) and stripped of its technical savvy and vast moral underpinnings. The point of "54" seems to be nothing deeper than the fact that there was this place where people partied and too bad the IRS shut it down.
The only time the movie comes close to dramatic power is when an old woman, a grandmother by day who drinks and drugs and dances like she's twenty by night, dies of an overdose on the dance floor during a New Year's Eve party. The music stops long enough for the body to be moved out of the way, and then, as Rubell puts it, "The show must go on." Although this is a perfect opportunity for Christopher to show that the recklessness of decadence is still reckless even when draped in glamour, he merely uses it as a plot point in Shane's maturation. Worst of all, everything then gets tied up in a pretty, "everything is okay after all" ending. Even though Shane finds that his dreams are not to be made in Studio 54, the movie tells us that there is no price to pay for his debauchery except a brief case of the clap.
Having to sit through Shane's ordeal of moving from busboy to bartender to disaffected youth just isn't that exciting. And his relationship with a soap opera star (Neve Campbell) is neither believable or necessary. The subplots, involving Greg (Breckin Meyer), Shane's best friend who's skimming money from the club to deal drugs, and his wife Anita (Salma Hayek), who is dying to become "the next Donna Summer," are charmless and predictable. Their main effect is to continually remind the viewer that "54" a fictional movie. Therefore, Christopher never gets what he really wants--a true recreation of the Studio 54 scene that feels real.
Sure, the production design by Kevin Thompson is good, and the costumes by Ellen Lutter are appropriately gaudy. The disco music pumps, the lights flash and twirl, giving lurid glimpses of gyrating bodies both on the dance floor and in the balcony, and the drugs and alcohol and money flow like water. But it's all for naught, because the movie has no dramatic tension or narrative drive to keep you involved, and it ends up feeling exactly like what it is: a simple recreation.
©1998 James Kendrick