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When the history of the republic in this century is written, a New York club owner named Steve Rubell might get his very own footnote. In the late 1970s, after all, this little rat-faced tyrant transformed an abandoned TV studio on West 54th Street into a laboratory for radical social experiment. Equal parts whorehouse, drug store and clip joint, Studio 54 became, briefly, the world's most famous discotheque, the crucible in which the American obsession with celebrity boiled over, and the pleasure dome where a certain style of decadence made its last stand.
On the strength of two gay-themed shorts that picked up prizes on the festival circuit, rookie writer-director Mark Christopher convinced the suits at hip Miramax Films that he was the man to chronicle this phenomenon. The result is 54, which turns out to be as much flight of nostalgia as horror show. Clearly, Christopher has a taste for tragicomedy as well as satire, and it serves him well here.
Equipped for the role with prosthetic nose, bald pate and leering grin, former Saturday Night Live star Mike Myers makes a perfectly bizarre Rubell. Whacked out of his skull on coke, cocktails and Seconal, he stops the uncool and the unacceptably dressed at the clubhouse door, extorts sexual favors from his busboys back in the office and seals his own doom by boasting on talk TV how he's cheating the IRS.
In Rubell's strobe-lit cocoon, blue-collar muscle men and ambitious sylphs from the Bronx rub elbows with Bianca and Warhol and Princess Grace, along with the flotsam of the entertainment, fashion and publishing industries. Deluded by the image of total freedom (didn't a Saudi prince just fly 7,000 miles to dance here for one night?), everybody's playing out the final days before stints in rehab and the scourge of AIDS bring them crashing down.
"It's a new world," the stoned host of the celebration spouts. "Labels and prejudices don't apply anymore." Except for his own labels and prejudices, that is. Myers invests this primitive social engineer with such manic self-absorption and compelling shallowness that the ultimate irony may now be in order: A dozen years after checking out at age 46, Steve Rubell deserves an Oscar nomination.
Christopher is unlikely to get one for his screenplay, which plays on the ancient cliche of the innocent who crosses the river into the Emerald City, there to find fame and fortune. Like Burt Reynolds's slimy-sweet pornographer in Boogie Nights (and dozens of movie mentors before that), Myers's Rubell takes a star-struck protege from the hinterlands and promptly corrupts him. In this case, it's one Shane O'Shea (Ryan Philippe), a fresh-faced gas-pump jockey from New Jersey whose good looks get him into Studio 54 and whose ambition elevates him to, well, bartender. After that, all the money, drugs and sex Shane can stand fall into his lap. After that comes the disillusionment inevitable to every story of this type.
The movie is well-stocked with other familiar figures, too. Lovely Salma Hayek and Breckin Meyer are a married hat-check girl and 54 busboy, respectively, driven by ambition, buffeted by temptation. Sela Ward pops in as a drug-addled socialite in a cowboy hat whose decadent pals regard Shane as a "gorgeous troglodyte." "Thanks," the poor kid says. Neve Campbell is another New Jersey kid who's made it--sort of--as a soap-opera actress but doesn't know where to go from here. Verisimilitude? Cameo players Lauren Hutton and Michael York, real-life survivors of the Studio 54 binge, revisit the scene of the crime. To put it bluntly, none of the characters--save Myers's Rubell--is what you'd call inventive.
On the other hand, 54 can be as fascinating to watch as a circus. Or a car crash. Unlike Whit Stillman in his lame and tame The Last Days of Disco, Christopher provides just the right Boschian perspective--overstuffed with worldly sin and eternal damnation. But this garden of earthly delights also rocks. The filmmaker has the capacity to be both thrilled and appalled by the spectacle of Studio 54--Park Avenue aristocrats openly copulating with strangers in the club's balcony, shirtless bartenders peddling vials of coke over the bar, sexually indeterminate couples dressed in Roman slave garb arriving with their pet goats in tow, social animal Truman Capote basking in a limelight, caressing the foot of a golden-curled boy dangled above him like an exquisite canape.
Still shopping for grotesques? Get a load of Disco Dottie (Ellen Albertini Dow), the withered grandmother who spends every night at "Studio" snorting drugs and getting down. In the end she gets really down, and the house lights have to come up.
All this Decline and Fall atmosphere serves as an elegy for the Seventies (a popular genre these days) and, if I don't miss my guess, as a yearning for a party that's long since over. The soundtrack alone, which features hits by everyone from Diana Ross to Rose Royce to War, is enough to send ex-disco ducks of a certain vintage rummaging through their attics in search of old Qiana shirts and platform shoes. Director Christopher has pulled off a nice trick here: He can at once apprehend the pathos of the sidewalk desperadoes straining at Studio 54's velvet ropes and the delusions of the gyrating fools, parasites and posers inside and capture the unfettered joy they take in their own self-destruction. Finally, of course, Rubell's world implodes and the experiment is finished.
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