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Whit Stilman’s The Cosmopolitans Works for the Same Reason Damsels in Distress Didn’t

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Whit Stilman’s movies are at their best when they create an atmosphere that is on the borderline between wealth and sadness, loneliness and privilege, the sense of being an outcast even while living at the center of a life that most can only envy. It’s what he captured first and best in Metropolitan.

It’s what he does again in The Cosmopolitans.

The Cosmopolitans is being compared to Barcelona, but it isn’t really. It’s closer to Metropolitan with Paris standing in for Manhattan and the loneliness of being an expat standing in for being poor. The writing isn’t quite as good, but it captures the same atmosphere and the same innocent timeless feel despite the cell phones.

Damsels in Distress was always doomed. Stilman doesn’t write women well which is why despite its atmosphere, The Last Days of Disco was a poor movie. Barcelona had the writing, but lacked the atmosphere. The Cosmopolitans brings them together. It captures what made a Whit Stilman movie work within the frame of a television show.

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The characters in Whit Stilman’s movies are trying to figure out who they are and what their lives should be. Their status has allowed them the space in which to do that without protecting them from the loneliness and heartbreak of trying. They were sheltered enough to have a kind of innocence that comes from immaturity. They were never really tested. Their decisions have never been hard. It might be easy to resent them if they weren’t basically good people underneath.

Adulthood is the truly foreign world for them. Paris is only a metaphor for the bigger emotional journey that they don’t know how to take.

I don’t know what kind of series The Cosmopolitans will make or if its mood will be sustainable, but if Amazon picks it up, I think it will work in its own way. Stillman’s openness can feel like indecisiveness and audiences may grow tired of a show in which nothing significant happens and in which the flavor of the place is the story. But the same could have been said of Seinfeld.

Stilman’s humor is the nuances. There’s no over the top word salad like Gilmore Girls. The feel of the show is in noticing the small things. It doesn’t try to fool you into thinking you’re smart. Instead you’re another outside experiencing the flavor of a particular place and time. It worked for Stilman in Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco. It works in The Cosmopolitans.

We’re not watching stupid characters pretending to be smart to convince us that we’re smart. Instead we’re watching smart people who make stupid mistakes because they’re only learning remind us that no matter how smart we are, we’re still basically fools.

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