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Girl power; 'Damsels' gets off to strong start but loses its way

You can't call Violet a snob really.

Sure, she'll confide to a new student at Seven Oaks College that their mutual alma mater is known for its B.O. and hold her nose whenever a gang of offending boys passes. "A good smelling environment is crucial to our well-being," she explains in her mercilessly explicative tone.

But when the time comes for her to choose a member of the school's foul and moronic male riffraff to partner with, she's proud of preferring to go for the bigger morons, rather than the more promising and well-scrubbed hot shots.

That's because "youth outreach" is the mission of Violet and her friends -- all of whom have the names of flowers (Lily, Rose and Heather). They are there to be helpful and improve everyone else -- to make them more fragrant and less dumb. Dating dolts is "more rewarding," says Violet. In fact, she confides in her perennially Girl Scout Handbook tone, "it's quite reassuring."

But then, among us sensible folk out here, the question might occur "what if it isn't?"

And there's what little plot there is in "Damsels in Distress," the first film in 13 years from moviedom's WASP Prepster Pasha, Whit Stillman ("Metropolitan," "Barcelona," "The Last Days of Disco").

The first 45 minutes of "Damsels in Distress" are hilarious. The obvious comparison is that it's the uplifting version of 1988's "Heathers" in which the self-chosen elite girls have opted to share their incomparable blessings with the world rather than use them to make everyone ashamed and miserable.

That's when Violet and her high-standard pals are indoctrinating their new recruit Lily into the joys and heartaches of their life's work, which includes suicide prevention and, in Violet's eyes, the best way to "change human history" -- create a new dance craze.

This sort of ironic whimsy is wildly funny -- the name of the small college's newspaper, for instance, is the Daily Complainer -- but it isn't hard to imagine an audience member dragged into "Damsels in Distress" from another taste pool entirely wanting to complain bitterly about his or her distress.

"Speaking of suicide prevention," Violet asks new school transfer Lily, "do you have a boyfriend?" That's a wildly funny line if you're on Stillman's wavelength of higher silliness. If your reaction to soaps whose fragrance cures depression and people seeking to live their lives inside an Astaire/Rogers musical is to do a 180 at the theater door, especially the minute a Seven Oaks professor waxes poetic over the works of Ronald Firbank, who's to blame you? Not me.

Especially since, in all truth, I found myself sitting heavy-lidded after those first 45 minutes when it's clear that Stillman and his kids are comically oh-so-tastefully dressed up with no place in the plot to go. A lot of marking time is done here.

When you get to the apotheosis, the musical number makes Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love" almost look professional in comparison.

I wouldn't have missed Stillman's extended set-up to his extended gag. I do think, though, the punch line needed work.

Mumblecore and indie queen Greta Gerwig plays insanely pedantic Violet and she's both delicious and wildly funny. Analeigh Tipton plays the more sensible Lily who may, after all, actually figure out a way to go through life on its own level.

My guess is that were she to wind up in the audience, Lily would think this movie awfully funny too. But that eventually she too might tire of it.




3 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke    

DIRECTOR: Whit Stillman    

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes    

RATING: PG-13 for mature thematic content including some sexual material.    

THE LOWDOWN: College students make it their life's mission to raise everyone else's standards.