Metropolitan (1990) — Movie Review

Colton Royle
9 min readMar 21, 2023

I write reviews based on four categories: Coherence, Intensity of Effect, Complexity, and Originality, each based on a score of 1 to 5. The total score is averaged out of these parts.

Metropolitan is a 1990 film written and directed by Whit Stillman. Over the course of several evenings, New York Yuppies make their debut and pick up a poor outsider, Tom Townsend, to join in the fun. What follows is a series of late night drinks and conversations, all by young and impressionable and well-dressed and well-read individuals. The movie is often dry as a result, but slowly builds its minute details into a surprising finishing act that, to me, reaches the sublime “surprising-but-inevitable” conclusion that many artists long for in narratives but seldom get.


Our window into this world is Tom Townsend, though he is by no means clear-eyed. He sees this world darkly, taking a negative stance towards these frivolous young people, from his own vantage point as a disinherited young man who cannot afford a tuxedo. Tom’s guide into this strange world is Nick Smith, an outspoken apologist and critic of the upper classes simultaneously. It is with Nick that we most feel the coherence of the film, as we are sort of whisked away by him into these parties. The movie presents itself at first as simply a string of nights with the young people. We have absolutely no idea what they do during the day, and instead we meet them in scattered evenings in only a handful of after parties, after the debutantes balls are over. But one of the better aspects of the film is how these details slowly convey an overarching series of side plots that converge to create a meaningful story. Tom, for one example, continues to flirt with the dangerous Serena Slocum, despite advances from the beautiful and genteel Audrey Rouget. Through gossip, we learn about why Serena might or might not be considered dangerous, and we learn why Audrey might or might not be so genteel as to be oblivious. Nick feels threatened by the status and romantic conquests of Rick von Sloneker, who may or may not have a sordid and manipulative past with young women. When these plots converge, the details on hand, even the arrival of smaller objects, feels earned and quite poignant, and make suggestions about what it means to be young and to experience a world that feels like you’ve arrived simultaneously too early and too late for. While the tone and the mood are less of an influence, I happen to think that the plot beats and the story that arises from it are remarkably well constructed. There are at times moments where the loquacity of the characters puts itself too far into commentary, rather than telling a story, and I think this happens the most in the first third of the film, as a way to attempt to quickly bootstrap characters onto these young people. Still, I am overall impressed with the coherence, and give it a 4 out of 5 as a result.

Intensity of Effect

Metropolitan, as the name suggests, is so infatuated with the idea of bringing to you an idea of what it means to be young and upper class, that it is also willing to render the immense and wide ranging emotions of youth into a dry whistle. Very little occurs in Metropolitan, and when it does, it is perfectly willing to hold back. To be sure, the editing and the timing of jokes in the film is on point, where quick cuts after telling the last line offers some laughs as transitions to the next scene. Sometimes this doesn’t work, which can lead to smirking and silence. But even at its most emotional moments in the climax, there is little at stake, and indeed that may be the point, as the movie constantly reminds you in small implicit and sometimes very explicit ways that these individuals really cannot be capable of failure. The best case for affect in the movie is Nick, whose barbed lines about their own kind are so effective that, when he exits the film before the finale, is absence is very much felt. Tom, the protagonist of the film, is brutally honest to the point of abrasive, and his dead pan delivery is so harsh that we start to really wonder what Audrey sees in him. While many of the characters have interesting flaws and ideas circulating them, I think Audrey as the love interest is missing something a little more robust. Later in the film, we’re offered the chance to critique her slightly, but it has the reversing effect of being a benefit to her, and I think this is not enough to pull her out of the realm of being a Mary Sue. The other young women in the story have a lot of grit and character, whether they enjoy gossip, offer opportunities to inject poison, or they find themselves disagreeing loud and often. Audrey does have weaknesses, such as her desire to not cause conflict overriding her misgivings, particularly in a moment of a truth-or-dare type game, which always ruins someone’s day. I think the film is smart enough to use Audrey’s demeanor against her, but the result is an intellectual one, not necessarily an emotional one. So too, the lines of dialogue are so dense that there is certainly no way an actor can really work the lines into any sort of characterization that does not sound like their noses are pinched. Intensity of Effect as a result is a 2 out of 5.


There is plenty to say about the complexity of the film. One knock against the film is that much of the complexity, not all, is narrative rather than with cinematography. Much of the look of the film is quite aged, and despite Criterion’s attempts to clean up Whit Stillman’s films, including The Last Days of Disco from 1998, it seems like there have been consistent problems with the softness and loss of detail at night. So we’re talking about the talking, and what a great deal there is to learn in the dialogue. Before Metropolitan I had seen Love and Friendship, Stillman’s 2016 adaptation of Jane Austen. Here in Metropolitan, Austen is mentioned early and often, so it’s clear that Stillman has a great deal of influence from the famous prose shakespearean of men and women and social mores. Much of the rhythm and cadence of the screenplay feel like they owe themselves to Austen as well. It’s great to see the 1990 film so far into the future, because I think it helps to reinforce several of the themes of the film further. Many of the characters we interact with have larger questions of their place in the world, and we see that their place, unlike many people, is a guarantee, and therein lies the problem. Whatever they do, they seem doomed to languish in mediocrity, and there is no guarantee that any of them will perform something great. As such, the ends of the spectrum of life lived, of tragedy and success, are lopped off, producing in us, the viewers, the realization that these young people are now in their mid to late 50s, and are likely sitting on nest eggs, and a slight alcohol addiction. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, though these young people are able to project an air of learned intelligence, they are just as desperate to find acceptance as anybody else.

One of the weaknesses of the film is that the reliance on dialogue is so heavy that there is no nuanced reactions in characters either in nonverbal sequences or in the use of shots or cinematic method. Each time, the characters outright state their claims or grand realizations, and the high and light tone of the dialogue cannot bear the weight. For the conclusion of Nick’s storyline, there is this heavy dialogue, but it’s reinforced by the actions of the finale. But for Tom’s romantic realization between Serena and Audrey, the end result is not nearly as competent. I’m of the opinion that Nick’s story is far more interesting and so the victory is a net gain, but the ambiguity of the dialogue to its weighty conclusions still lives in the film.

Ultimately I found the context of the film highly rewarding. I did not grow up in this climate, and for a literary person like myself, I find myself fantasizing about just this sort of things. Maybe not with young people, but with adults. What I realized in the film is the extent to which the young people are trapped between high manners and human desires. Nick is willing to interrogate this space, but ends up popping the bubbled layer that separates the two, and ostracizes himself as a result. Tom is far more blunt, so he earns some respect from the group for making his desires and viewpoints rather plain, but he runs into problems with them when these desires of which he has not been shy about, run into the routines and traditions of what courting during this period of debuting is all about. The benefit of a comedy of manners lies in these minor trips, which end up being far more subtle to other comedy types, but I think it also makes it indelible and long-lasting. A 4 out of 5 for complexity.


Ever since the Opera “Carmen,” the portrayal of worldly and lower class types has been seen by critics as being risky and rewarding. In contrast, such posh and pristine films like Metropolitan are viewed as conservative, fluffy, and forgettable. I think Stillman’s films are a sort of attempted revisionism of that dichotomy. Metropolitan reminded me quite a bit of John Updike’s “Couples,” his most popular novel, one that attempted to bring the same level of heavier attention to the supposed malaise of the suburbs. What the young people in Metropolitan experience is the weight of the entire world levied onto the meaning of their lives in the choice of a romantic partner for marriage, with little to no significance for the development of their lives to come. In that way, they all behave frivolously, as if time were of no consequence, while also finding themselves backed up by hundreds of years of tradition. This flares up in the conflict between Nick Smith and Rick von Sleneker. Ironically, out of all the parents to appear in the story, it is Tom’s single mother, as they live out of a grungy apartment in what remains of a father who has practically abandoned them. Tom’s mother is loving, patient, and understanding. The other parents are nowhere to be seen, thus paradoxically enhancing their authority when Nick is told to attend a ball that is broadcast on television. This is in diametric contrast to works featuring poor youths, who find themselves making decisions that the world will not apply meaning to, but that entrap the adolescents for decades to come. I think that makes Metropolitan original if only for revealing a narrative that rests outside the typical critique. When watching recent films of wealth inequality, like The Menu starring Ralph Fiennes, and Triangle of Sadness, or the television show White Lotus, the humor derives from an unsubtle display of ostentatious wealth and predatory behavior. Metropolitan takes this easy critique and asks the far more difficult question of what creates the next generation of wealthy. None of these characters are at the top of the food chain, but they are certainly very far from the bottom, which means that they are introduced into the world so as to continue it, and not shape it, which is a very profound and uneasy critique on how the inertia of the world keeps history happy. I think originality is a 5 out of 5.

A 3.75 out of 5.0 average does not quite reveal the polarizing feel of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. No one denies the intelligence of the writer, but I can imagine the screenplay of the film weaponized by certain people towards their friends and relations. It is difficult for me to recommend this movie unless I was absolutely sure what kind of audience I was to have. As such, it’s a movie with a very narrow window, and while I enjoyed the film immensely, I rather enjoyed the ability to enjoy it, which is to say that I liked feeling pretentious enough to get some of the commentary told through speaking. Like the yuppies, that makes the film incredibly insular, so I would not venture out and recommend this movie unless you want to feel that high and light sense of aristocracy that comes from quickly downing a glass of champagne.



Colton Royle

Colton tries to picture a world in which nobody trusted their System 1 thinking. He is currently working on trying to be a better listener.