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[whitespace] 54
The Mosh Pits of Yesteryear: Ryan Phillippe boogies the night away in '54.

'54' chronicles the lifestyles of disco's dumb and beautiful

By Zack Stentz

MOST OF US remember mom's favorite rhetorical question, "What do you think you'll get by on--your good looks?" If the new film 54 is to believed, Studio 54 in its heyday was a place where you could do just that. The movie charts the rise and fall of the fabled disco-era New York nightclub through the eyes of Shane O'Shea (Ryan Phillippe), a handsome but dim young buck from New Jersey who dreams of mingling with the rich and famous across the Hudson River. He soon gets his wish, thanks to a plucky attitude and well-defined abs. As young Shane dances, hustles and substance-abuses his way to the top of the club's hierarchy (bartender to the VIP room--oooh!) while courting soap-opera star Julie (played by world's most boring young actress, Neve Campbell), the film's big moral dilemma lurches into view: namely, should beautiful young dummies have sex with ugly old rich people as a means to get ahead in the world?

In case you miss it the first time, we see variations on the theme happen to four separate characters: Shane, Julie, dim busboy Greg (Breckin Meyer) and his coat-check girlfriend/wannabe disco-queen wife (a shamefully wasted Salma Hayek). Given the fact that these characters were allowed to enter this privileged world of money, power and Quaaludes precisely because of their youth and beauty, their shock that sexual favors are expected of them comes across as just a tad hypocritical. Not to mention homophobic. Shane is perfectly happy to thrust away on an aging society girl (Sela Ward standing in for Bianca Jagger) for party invitations and fashion tips, but a sleazy film producer's invitation to a three-way is played as the ultimate in degradation.

More interesting is the film's examination of club impresario Steve Rubell (Mike Myers) and the mechanics of how he was able to manufacture and sustain the famous nightspot and its formidable reputation. How did he do it? In short, through the creation of artificial scarcity. As Karl Marx would have been able to tell you, the desirability and fabulousness of Rubell's realm beyond the velvet rope was in direct proportion to the surplus army of clubbers forced to remain outside. Not that 54 invites much sympathy for those who stand and wait. Once Shane is admitted into the club, we're treated to only a few scenes of the poorly dressed throngs crowding the door before cutting away to the beautiful bodies on the dance floor. Why worry about the kids who were picked last for the dodgeball team when you can watch the jocks disco-dancing with the cheerleaders?

This cocaine-fueled golden age couldn't last, though, and after spending 80 minutes establishing what a snobbish bastard Rubell was, 54 proceeds to treat his downfall as if it were the fall of the House of Atreus. It's indicative of the movie's thematic confusion that it wants to show us how great the party was while simultaneously wagging a reproachful finger at the excesses of those who took part in it. In the end, one doesn't leave the theater humming a Donna Summer tune, but rather singing the words of another set of 1970s icons who certainly weren't invited to 54, the Sex Pistols: "It's pretty/pretty vacant/and we don't care."

54 (R; 95 min.), directed and written by Mark Christopher, photographed by Alexander Gruszynski and starring Ryan Phillippe, Mike Myers and Salma Hayek.

From the September 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro.

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