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Friday, September 14, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Metropolitan' Succeeds Despite Breaking Rules Of Action

XXX 1/2 ``Metropolitan,'' with Christopher Eigeman, Edward Clements, Carolyn Farina, Taylor Nichols, Will Kempe. Written and directed by Whit Stillman. Guild 45th. ``PG-13'' - Parental guidance advised, due to language.

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All talk. Little action.

It's not supposed to work in movies, but American independent filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh (``sex, lies, and videotape'') and John Sayles (``Return of the Secaucus Seven'') have made the formula pay off without ever making their movies seem merely stagey or verbose.

Writer-director Whit Stillman joins their club with his sparkling new comedy of manners, ``Metropolitan,'' which goes much further in breaking the rules. It not only has no car chases, it's all about upper-class Manhattan snobs. What cheek!

Stillman's movie is a bravely ingenious throwback to another era, when the sophisticated bantering of the heroes and heroines of ``Top Hat'' and ``The Philadelphia Story'' entertained a surprising number of people who had never ventured anywhere near the fashionable restaurants, ballrooms and mansions in which these characters carried on their infatuations and feuds.

What these Depression-era Hollywood fantasies have in common with ``Metropolitan'' is a fascination with the relative ordinariness of the idle rich. In spite of their ready wit, their ability to turn a phrase and quote Jane Austen, these well-groomed Park Avenue preppies and debutantes have the same problems as everyone else. They're in love with the wrong people, they don't know what's good for them, and they make themselves miserable over nothing.

Stillman's characters carry a further fascination: They're so young they barely understand their own feelings. They're literate, intelligent and they even have an ironic sense of themselves as an insulated, endangered species (one of them laments that ``the whole preppy class'' is doomed), but they're also teen-agers.

And not all of them are well-off. Stillman uses a relative outsider to the group to draw us into their circle - a red-headed young Socialist named Tom Townsend who has to worry about the cost of renting a tuxedo and returning it on time. As it turns out, Tom is even more of a snob than the rest of the group. He says he dislikes deb parties and bridge games, and prefers reading literary criticism to spending his time on the novels themselves.

Yet through Tom, we gradually become quite drawn to the company of the charmingly introspective Audrey Rouget, who is infatuated with Tom, and the witty Nick Smith, who always sees through Tom's arguments. Tom is desperately needed to fill an ``escort shortage,'' and Nick points out that nowhere else in New York can he enjoy such a comfortable social life for so little financial output.

Also part of the circle: Charlie Black, a jealous preppy who is devoted to Audrey and suspicious of Tom; Serena Slocum, who is stringing Tom along; Sally Fowler, who provides the location for the group's meetings as well as their facetious name (the Sally Fowler Rat Pack); and, eventually, a cad named Rick Von Sloneker, who is the one person capable of sending Nick off the deep end, creating ``composite'' gossip ``the way New York magazine does'' and alienating him from the group.

Stillman sets ``Metropolitan'' during Christmas vacation ``not so long ago,'' and it's almost like setting it in a galaxy far, far away. His script may or may not connect with any current realities, although it really doesn't matter. He's created his own detailed, well-defined world and populated it with people who are quite believable within the limitations he's set for them.

He's also hand-picked a cast of unknowns who couldn't be more in tune with their roles. Especially fine are Edward Clements as Tom, Carolyn Farina as Audrey and Christopher Eigeman as the dynamic, acerbic yet never cruel Nick - an unforgettably precocious character who makes ``Metropolitan'' the surprisingly accessible film it is.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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