Metropolitan, or How I Learned to Stop Kvetching and Love Christmas

Photo: New Line Cinema/The Criterion Collection
Falling for the shiksa girl is a cliché at least as old as Goodbye, Columbus, but you should have seen Christina, the newt-nosed willowy blonde in my sixth-grade algebra class. Christina—bacon cheeseburger of goy names—Christina had the same blue eyes and lilting, non-Brooklyn accent of her thin-hipped peers. But she differed in having a mother who didn’t mind arranging homework dates with the myopic, dandruff-plagued, harmlessly bookish boy down the block. That Christina agreed to these dates without retching or arranging some high-concept public humiliation was a mitzvah about which even Portnoy could not complain.

It wasn’t just Christina I fell for. It was her whole gentile family. Their last name was not “Jones” but something like it. The Joneses had a liquor cabinet. The father drove a convertible. Consider these exoticisms alongside the three fingers’ worth of chardonnay and reliable station wagons that were my parents’ indulgences. My family got ulcers, asthma, and into arguments about allergy medication. Christina’s had bona fide alcoholism on both sides. Contested inheritances. Original sin.

Forgive me, but my fascination with Calvinist childhoods and Cheeverian marriages grows especially keen each year about a week after Thanksgiving, when the LiteFM station becomes 104Santa, and the inflatable nativity aisle opens at WalMart. Christmas is a holiday celebrated by Jews around the world as a reminder of thousands of years of exile. It is a time to eat potato pancakes and rekindle the twin candles of shame and pride in otherness, and to watch a lot of Christmas movies.

Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan has the appeal of being both a Christmas movie and an anthropological study of goy life among the upper crusties. The first time I watched it I’d never heard of the south Hamptons, and here the term was, charged with exotic meaning. I didn’t know what a detachable collar was, but learned from the film that as a fashion item it is “symbolically important.”

Tom (Edward Clements), the film’s hero, is not Jewish—and in fact Stillman’s New York is weirdly Jew-less. But Tom is nevertheless an outsider, home from college on winter break and attempting to pass in a social world where nobody has to take public transportation. Unlike the third-generation millionaires who adopt him as one of their own, Tom can barely afford cab fare. His parents are divorced. He lives on the grubby Upper West Side and is forced to rent the tuxedo he wears to the first of the season’s many debutante balls, which, incidentally, he opposes on principle for their propagation of outmoded social customs. (Tom is a fan of the French social theorist Joseph Fourier.)

The other thing you quickly notice in Metropolitan is the vibe of “Peanuts Take Manhattan.” The film exists in a world populated solely by children, moreover by comically adult children. Parents are rarely mentioned, even more rarely in-scene. (“I don’t think I’ve met anyone’s parents,” Tom notes.) The Yalies who fill out this world, who for our purposes are the sole residents within walking distance of Central Park, have never had their mothers arrange algebra dates.

They are also almost all virgins, and possess wonderful Victorian ideas about sex. The movie’s final stretch concerns two boys’ race to Long Island to stop a college-aged woman from losing her virginity to the creep of her choice. But then they also betray adult cleverness, with pinky-raised observations about the male escort shortage. They are—except for Nick, the cynic—earnest, intent on adopting the mannerisms of their station. At one point the bookworm Audrey bids Tom farewell with a sincere and frowning “Good luck with your Fourierism!”

Most often this literary name-dropping is just that. Metropolitan has been called an “unashamedly literary film,” but the references to Fourier, Austen and Tolstoy pepper the dialogue in only the most superficial ways, usually for the sake of intellectual currency—although the film does acknowledge, in a light way, the class and gender issues addressed by those writers. Especially Austen, who is mentioned so often you expect her to pop in for a cameo.

Stillman, who wrote and directed Metropolitan, owes a stylistic debt to Austen’s parlor dramas, as well. His characters’ banter is stiltedly formal. Conversations—most of which take place in living rooms—move from schoolyard gossip to whether the “urban haute bourgeoisie” is necessarily doomed. U.H.B. (sounds like “club”) is the pack’s invented term, a way of identifying the tribe.

Ah, now we’re in familiar territory: New York tribes, comfortable among their own. So it’s actually like Austen meets Woody Allen’s Manhattan or Annie Hall—and therefore a mirror image of those films. Allen’s characters, while no less mannered, are all id, bursting with sexual accusations and acidic bon mots. Stillman’s Upper East Siders, like all of Austen’s heroes, are reserved superegos. They consider soberly, as a group, what would be good for the preppy class, how a girl might avoid ruination at the hands of the lascivious Rick von Sloneker. They eschew sarcasm and no one is neurotic. In one decidedly non-Allen exchange, Nick is accused of railing unfairly against the titled aristocracy. “What about the untitled aristocracy?” one of the girls asks him. “Well I couldn’t very well despise them, could I?” he says. “That would be self-hatred.” In Allen’s world, self-hatred is an epistemological necessity. Here it is inconceivable.

Apart from Allen, Metropolitan’s spiritual relatives seem to be Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. All three films express, through rose-tinted peepholes into boarding schools and drawing rooms, an awkward love for the oft-reviled upper class. U.H.B. usually appear in Hollywood products only when there’s an eclectic apartment building of bohemians to raze, or when a heroine needs a rich fiancée to dump in act three for the working-class leading man. Remember that cinema has long been for Americans the most fiercely egalitarian night out. Symphonies, ballet, theater—all the provinces of the crisply tuxedoed. At the Bijou, tickets are cheap, seats are unassigned, and the floors are as sticky for the sneaker as for the Italian loafer. In the dark of the Cineplex, the Park Avenue heiress might fight for armrest space with the Washington Heights hairdresser. Audrey might split a tub of popcorn with Portnoy.

So there is a risk involved in Metropolitan’s depiction of sympathetic rich kids. What moviegoer is going to sympathize with a virginal bunch of spoiled brats who at movie’s end receive no comeuppance whatsoever (not even at the hands of some ragtag band of ne’er-do-wells from the summer camp across the lake)? One could imagine viewers failing to connect even with Tom, who as the film’s poorest character nevertheless had a trust fund before his parents’ divorce forced him to move with his mother to the unfashionable Upper West Side.

But Stillman keeps the audience on his side the same way Allen and Anderson do: by treating the drama as incidental to the fun, and by finding humor in characters’ seriousness. In one impassioned speech, Nick implores Tom to consider the feelings of the newly socialized preppy girls before refusing to attend more parties. He concludes, with deadly seriousness, “I’m not entirely joking!” Tom’s relative poverty—and later, a mild love triangle—create some low-heat conflict, but it’s never a mystery how the comedy of manners ends.

Nothing much happens in Metropolitan, the same way nothing much happens in Manhattan (and how Seinfeld is “about nothing”). It is of a class of New York stories, content to gape at the ways in which comfortable urbanites live, love, drink, and shop. With similar predictability, Christmas movies celebrate the cozy and familiar rituals of the world’s most popular holiday. Stillman renders his surroundings exotic by feeding the model through the ethics of Austen, and by introducing an outsider, Tom, with whom even a suburban Jewish boy—still faintly bruised by the rejection of a sandy-haired sixth-grader, perhaps eating Chinese food alone this December 25—can relate.