"A guy named Steve Rubell had a dream," we're told in the voice-over right at the beginning of Mark Christopher's "54" -- a dream "to throw the best party the world had ever seen and to make it last forever," a party in which "there were no rules."
It's an adolescent vision of the earthly paradise that the movie shares, ultimately fatally.
The guy who is telling us this is a young no-account from Jersey who casts yearning looks over the water at Manhattan; a kid who wants to make it there someday, by golly. The lack of knowing irony here is stunning and remains so throughout the movie.
He succeeds at Rubell's famous '70s disco palace Studio 54, only because he looks good with his shirt off.
It's his story we're being told here, as if he were Tony Manero of "Saturday Night Fever," a '70s fever dream that no longer works in the era that has given us the ironic '70s wonderland of Dirk Diggler and his "Boogie Nights."
It's certainly true that a good deal of stupidity is usually required for degenerate behavior. Unfortunately, stupidity is a the worst possible quality that the maker of a film about decadence can have. To make a good film about stupidity takes major brains and Christopher doesn't even have the opening bid.
In other words, Rubell and Studio 54 are very good subjects for a movie about which Christopher has nothing interesting whatsoever to say.
It's a very bad movie into which some pretty good people were roped in to doing good work -- most notably Mike Myers as the epicene and petulantly corrupt Rubell and the sensational-looking Salma Hayek, who steadfastly refuses to be the sum of her extraordinary physical parts, even though the movie doesn't begin to deserve her. She seems to be under the impression that the movie was a career-maker of sorts, a clear indication she ought to sit down and have a very long talk with her agent.
Look, I'll confess five times over that I'm not one of those who was clamoring for a disco comeback in the late '90s. When it was around the first time, in fact, I hoped that Debbie Harry and Donna Summer would stay and everyone else would go away as soon as possible.
Studio 54, though, is an uncommonly rich subject. But you'd never know it watching "54." Compared to the badness of "54," Whit Stillman's brightly mediocre "The Last Days of Disco" was practically "Citizen Kane."
There's so much to say about this world. For one thing, there is the whole velvet rope mentality that Rubell so brazenly wielded against everyone he considered unattractive and uninteresting. It's always seemed to me that it was merely an extension of the whole Manhattan ethos of deprivation, where there is never enough of anything to go around, starting with geographical space and going all the way up to fame and money. Everyone scrambles and strives like mad for whatever there is.
There is scarcely anything on the whole island that masochistic Manhattanites can't turn into an ugly and cruel status ceremony (with the guarantee that the majority will be somehow left outside the velvet rope and, therefore, found wanting).
Manhattan, in other words, thrives on the day-to-day politics of exclusion. Rubell figured that out. He knew there is nothing people want more than what they're never going to have.
Rubell wasn't just an ugly man who routinely denied access to his club solely on the basis of looks. He was a middle-class Jew who was eventually sought out
by celebrities and royalty looking for sybaritic Valhalla. People had sex upstairs in the balcony, danced on the floor, snorted coke and popped pills everywhere.
The script is smart enough to tell us how smart Rubell was to figure out how to get the celebrities of two continents competing to get into his dank, smelly basement. But it isn't nearly smart enough to try to guess how he did it.
All this movie has is a dreary '30s movie idea of noble innocence vs. big-city wickedness -- fine if you're watching James Cagney in his prime, but ridiculous, without irony, on the lip of the 21st century.
It made sense to watch Tony Manero climb the disco ladder in "Saturday Night Fever" because when he got to the top, he still hadn't ascended very far up the social scale. It was a complex and rich portrait of a lower-middle class social world we saw painted with wonderful precision.
"54" is about a whole superficial ladder of Manhattan glamour, but the viewpoint is imprecise and pure bumpkin.
A need for mass-marketed sophistication in movies has been there since they first became a mass medium. People -- especially young people -- want it. They want to see how it's done. They want to catch a glimpse of what they're not likely to see in life -- of what, in fact, they really want no part of in life.
"54" gives people nothing that any fool couldn't have guessed before going in. Seeing the movie, then, is redundant at best.
Myers and Hayek aren't the only ones who do good work to no discernible purpose here. Sela Ward has a small part as a singer who is a club habitue and wearily amused by the pretensions of our hero, the shirtless busboy who wants to be the bartender (played by Ryan Phillippe). A better movie would have had many, many more minutes of her.
Neve Campbell has a goofy appeal as the soap star who is the young innocent's almost and sort-of girlfriend. She, too, is winning in a losing cause.
I'll say this much for "54" -- it has one superbly squalid, sordid scene in which a pill-zonked Rubell (who died of AIDS) is carried home by one of his aides and is dumped onto a bed of money that represents his evening's skimmings from the club's take. He comes on to one of his heterosexual male employees, overcomes the employee's reluctance and, just as he is about to service him, throws up all over his money.
There's something to be said for a movie that, if nothing else, makes degeneracy look truly degenerate.
Not much, but something.
Unfortunately, so many good movies have been made about parallel milieus -- "Basquiat," "Boogie Nights," and "I Shot Andy Warhol," as well as the mediocre "The Last Days of Disco" -- that this one, on its trip from Jersey into Manhattan, sinks into the Hudson River and never really comes up for air.