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Jason Myers reviews '54'

September 02, 1998

Jason MyersBy JASON MYERS

It is always disappointing when an instance of cultural archaeology fails to create any interest in or insight to the subject being excavated from the depths and dusts of years past.

Every year, it seems as though someone from a literary estate trips over a box of faded parchment and steals a few headlines.

Earlier this summer, British recording artist Billy Bragg and American honky tonks Wilco released an album called "Mermaid Avenue," which placed newly released lyrics by folk legend Woody Guthrie within the folds of the modern sonic spectrum.

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The result was stunning, precisely because the frequency at which such renovations are successful is - well, infrequent. Guthrie's songs were more acutely hewn and timeless than songwriters even as great as Dylan - and on "Mermaid Avenue," you do not feel you are listening to a ghost so much as a resurrected spirit; the poise and passion of Guthrie's words are electrified by the playing of Bragg and Wilco.

Movies examining previous eras often do so with nostalgia, waxing sentimental for days in which we had more innocence and more fun - though these concepts are polar extremes, movies tend to think they can co-exist. This is the mental deficiency that makes Mark Christopher's "54" seem not so much like a film but a television homage hosted by Charlton Heston. The movie is so busy adoring the past that it forgets to recreate the past.

The funny thing - the "past" is barely 20 years ago. Set amidst the cocaine and star dust of Studio 54, New York's swinging soiree center from the '70s to the early '80s, "54" is less ablaze in a disco inferno than smoldering in elevator music coals.

Even if Whit Stillman's scriptbound and sophisticated "The Last Days of Disco" bore as much similarity to the disco scene as it did to Greek tragedy, Stillman knew how to incorporate music into the moods of his film. Christopher - whose script is hardly bound anywhere, much less to itself - has more of an eye than an ear, and even his vision is somewhat blurred.

His camera fondles the body of Shane (Ryan Phillippe), a New Jersey kid who emerges from the Garden State and is transformed by Steven Rubell (Mike Myers), the owner and organizer of Studio 54. You have to worry a little when in one of the initial scenes, Rubell has Shane remove his shirt or be removed from the club. "54" is a tone poem - albeit, a tone deaf one without any poetry - to shirtless bartenders and bus boys. After a while, I began to think Studio 54 had been transplanted with a Chippendales bar; if I wanted to see so many bare-chested men ... that's right, I never would want to see so many bare-chested men.

But if Christopher seems fascinated with those working in the club, it is as though he were oblivious to the thousands of bodies surrounding them. The only celebrity - and I use that word very ostensibly - given more than a moment's attention is Julie Black (Neve Campbell), Shane's raison d'etre.

They have some wistful romance that belongs in a Susan Sontag novel, not a film allegedly about a club where affairs were fleeting and the only constant was a drug high. Campbell has a face too pure and clean to be in a movie of this nature; you keep expecting her to botch a line and call out for one of her "Party of Five" siblings - "Bailey, you wouldn't believe it; they were putting little white pills in their mouths, only none of them had a headache."

Oddly, Campbell fits "54," because the entire film is possessed by naivete. Shane is a character so vapid his sentences generally are no longer than "huh?"; yet when it comes time for the film's knowing narrative, Shane comes through with observations possessing a Cliffs Notes style of wisdom.

Christopher is so inept, especially as a writer but also as a director, that he does not deserve the sad-eyed surety of Mike Myers' performance. As Rubell stands out front and the pathetic masses clamor and cry, selling their souls for a glimpse of Andy Warhol or amphetamine, you begin to understand the aristocracy of popularity.

Myers' smile is more snarky than in any of his comic performances, and you can feel the bitterness behind it. As Rubell writhes in the mountain of money spilling off his bed - he goes home with a garbage bag full each evening until the IRS suspect he's not walking out with empty bottles - you realize that it is his only genuine connection to the people who come to his club. There's no bliss in "54," but in Myers' performance there's the confetti of truth.

One would assume that someone needs to know something about the past in order to represent it - but both Stillman's film and Christopher's are modern worlds with anachronistic decorations. To these two directors, the past is merely a backdrop.

Jason Myers, a Hagerstown native, is a freshman at Bennington College in Bennington, Vt.

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