There's something essentially charming about this lordly, sometimes mean-spirited jerk-schmoozer. When he sentimentally tells the crowd on the dance floor that he loves them, you can see that he means it absolutely -- at that moment. You can see what this club and its clientele mean to him, how they make him feel invincible.
Rubell's belief that he can openly flout the law is an honest mistake. He thinks that being beautiful puts you above the rules, which is usually correct, and that his position makes him such a beautiful person, which is incorrect. Christopher's best directorial touch comes near the end, during Rubell's homecoming party at Studio 54 after his prison term. When we see him, dressed in evening clothes, his face is in shadow. He's become the Phantom of the Disco -- a powerful yet unsuccessful aspirant to his ideal of beauty now relegated to lurking in the dark.
What a mistake to shuffle this juicy performance to the background of the film, but this is sadly typical of 54. In the end narration, Shane gripes that the new corporate owners who took over Studio 54 after Rubell and Schrager's crash made the club "safe and boring." But that's exactly what Christopher has done to 54.
But so what? The received wisdom on this film is likely to be that it's fumbled a great subject. Well, no doubt it could have been far better, but is it really a such a great subject? Rubell seems to have been an amusing fellow, but he was also an ingratiating, nerdy wannabe who craved popularity; he drew his power by excluding from his club anyone who wasn't beautiful and/or rich and famous. This story is retold every day, in every high school. The fact that at Studio 54 it was done by grownups doesn't, in itself, make the story an epic.
Directed and written by Mark Christopher. Starring Ryan Phillippe, Mike Myers, Salma Hayek, and Neve Campbell.