If you never made it to the famous New York hot spot Studio 54 during its heyday, you might be drawn to see 54 to find out what the fuss was about. According to those who got in, the place itself wasn’t nearly as impressive as the status of getting in — the honor of being stylish and fabulous enough to be judged worthy of entrance. Well, now that any of us with a Netflix account can get into 54, the club stands revealed as what it was: a glitzy playpen for trendoids, wannabes, and campy celebrities. Let me pause for a minute to think of a more boring subject for a movie …. Sorry. I give up.
If Boogie Nights was all sizzle and no steak, 54 is neither steak nor sizzle — it’s just an empty plate. Writer-director Mark Christopher, who previously contributed a segment to the gay anthology Boys Life 2, certainly plays up the overt homo-eroticism of the place — the ripe young men swaggering around shirtless, the women stuck in ghastly height-of-1979-fashion wigs and outfits that made them look like drag queens. Christopher presents the hedonism (the cocaine, the open copulation in the balcony) without judgment, yet he’s wedded the true story of Studio 54 to a fictional story that lacks the conviction to be moralistic. Once again, a young innocent (Ryan Phillippe, making Mark Wahlberg look like Olivier) is lured into sex and drugs, and once again everyone parties hard until a death during the New Year 1980 bash foretells the death of an era. Any of this sound familiar?
Shane O’Shea (Phillippe) starts at 54 as a busboy, then works his way up to bartending — the primo job, where you can schmooze with powerful players and top models. Are we supposed to care whether this blank-faced kid makes it? Shane befriends a young married couple — fellow busboy Greg (Breckin Meyer) and his wife Anita (Salma Hayek), who dreams of being a singer. Shane is also fixated on Julie Black (Neve Campbell), a soap actress who wants to cross over into movies. So we have a bunch of low-level, obscure people deluding themselves that they’re on the fast track to success — again, any of this sound familiar? When I saw Boogie Nights , I never thought I would one day compare it favorably to even more derivative movies, but that was before I saw 54.
Mark Christopher has no apparent feelings for his chosen milieu (the movie was shot on a Toronto soundstage), and I never figured out how he felt about Steve Rubell, the effusive ringmaster of 54. Stretching his legs in his first dramatic role, Mike Myers does what he can with a shallow conception, but Rubell remains remote and unknowable right to the end (as he was, perhaps, in life). We don’t know whether we’re supposed to take Rubell as a nurturing party boy or as a corrupt little bastard who promotes his male staff in exchange for sexual favors. This inconsistency, and a lot more in the movie, may be due to severe pre-release trims (the distributor, Miramax, is famously scissors-happy). Or it may be due to the script, which, judging from what’s left, was never particularly focused or insightful.
If a mitigating director’s cut surfaces on DVD, I promise to apologize. [EDIT: Such a DVD has yet to present itself. Therefore I have yet to apologize. However, as of late 2008 a director's cut has been shown and praised.] But I think I’m safe in my bewildered contempt for this film. 54 doesn’t give you the highs or lows of the dying disco age; it’s just a series of hackneyed scenes that make Boogie Nights look like a model of originality. If you go to this movie wondering what the fuss at Studio 54 was about, you’ll still wonder about it when the movie is over.