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Barely Stayin' Alive

Shane, the teenage hero of Mark Christopher's 54, wears the petulant expression of a Raphaelite cherub, and he comes complete with a halo of curly blond hair. He's played by a pretty newcomer with the exotic name of Ryan Phillippe, but there's nothing exotic about the voice that comes out of him; by nature or by acting, it's convincing Jersey. Looking across the river at the Manhattan skyline in the late '70s, Shane thinks he's looking at El Dorado. And in his case, he's right.

When Shane reads in the newspapers about the beautiful people who frequent Steve Rubell's and Ian Schrager's Studio 54 nightclub, he dreams of mingling with them. One night he persuades his friends -- by suggesting that they might see Olivia Newton-John -- to drive there and try to get in. His friends are turned away, but owner-manager Rubell (Mike Myers) gives Shane the green light. Once he's in he's all the way in; within a few scenes he becomes a busboy, and before long he's a favorite of the trendy set.

In his recent The Last Days of Disco, writer-director Whit Stillman took just about the nuttiest and most daring approach imaginable to the same subject matter -- an intellectual approach. His characters sat around a disco plainly based on Studio 54 and jawed about the sociological significance of the disco movement. There was sex, there were drugs, and there was a little tax evasion, but none of these vulgarities was where the movie's heart seemed to be -- Stillman's characters didn't even dance all that much. They just talked, talked, talked, as if talking in a disco were even possible.

Dealing with the same place, period, and incidents, the young writer-director Christopher is a lot less eccentric than Stillman, and so 54 turns out to be a lot less original than The Last Days of Disco -- and potentially a lot more profitable. It's just a conventional Horatio Alger rags-to-riches tale, with no sense of irony or perspective. When Shane is allowed to pass the club's doors -- after Rubell has him take off his shirt -- we're left with no doubt that he's entered hallowed ground. But even Moses only had to take off his shoes.

What he sees inside is supposed to be a middle-class vision of the Elysian Fields. Drugs flow freely, a couple has sex openly, celebrities such as Truman Capote and Andy Warhol populate the place. Christopher means for this to wow us; he's thoroughly bought into the image of Studio 54 as a seductive paradise. If the ghost of Rubell, who died in 1989, could somehow see the film, he probably would smile; no doubt this is just the sort of legendary awe he hoped he'd inspire in us unsophisticated rubes. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Christopher got it right.

Besides, what we see just doesn't have the glamour it's meant to. What's fascinating is how quaint and square this milieu seems. The problem is the timidity of the directing. The ostensibly wild-'n'-crazy scenes are, in terms of shock, about on the level of the Orgy of the Golden Calf in DeMille's The Ten Commandments -- that is, they don't seem like much more than a good, rowdy party.

The timidity extends to the plot, most of which is fictitious, with the IRS troubles that landed Rubell in jail in the '80s treated as a background subplot. (Schrager, who's still alive to sue, is glossed over.) For instance, Rubell offers both Shane and his friend (Breckin Meyer) chances at advancement in return for sex. Both are straight, and both bolt. That doesn't seem as potentially dramatic as the alternative, but it does seem commercially canny; it's less likely to upset the mainstream audiences this film hopes to snare.

54 is pokey and banal and slovenly. If it were a clubber waiting outside Studio 54, it wouldn't get picked. But it isn't awful to sit through; the actors rescue it. Phillippe is very likable in his Candide-ish role. His scenes with Neve Campbell, as the soap opera actress he has a crush on, go nowhere, but it's neither performer's fault; the writing here is hopeless. Phillippe's work with Salma Hayek, as the coat-check girl and aspiring diva who befriends him, have a warm sense of intimacy, and he also does well opposite Heather Matarazzo (Welcome to the Dollhouse), as his adoring but much smarter younger sister. His best scene, though, occurs early on: Standing on the dance floor for the first time, he lets out an enthusiastic whoop at the performer on stage (the soundtrack music is surprisingly tolerable, even for discophobes), sees the eye-rolling reaction among those around him, and quickly inhibits himself. He's a fast learner.

Lauren Hutton and Michael York, among others, contribute enjoyable minor roles, and Sela Ward -- who as a young model was a real-life Studio 54 regular -- is effective as a music exec who takes Shane and the coat-check girl under her wing. The film's real saving grace, however -- the only remotely pressing reason to see it -- is Mike Myers' turn as the ex-steak house manager Rubell.

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.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead

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