“Damsels in Distress.” Ok. Wait a minute, that sounds familiar. Of course. It was Fred Astaire, George Burns and Gracie Allen, in a slapstick musical comedy based on a novel by the great comic writer P.G. Wodehouse, a classic of even longer ago.

Whit Stillman’s (“Metropolitan, 1” “Last Days of Disco”) “Damsels” is equally a quirky, multi-wrapped slightly dark comedy that bears no other resemblance to P.G’s plot, but for one incredibly marvelous scene that arrives at the very end of the film when suddenly, George and Ira Gershwin’s “Things Are Looking Up” turns the movie upside down and smack into a roaring, joyous surprise that will make you spill your popcorn.

If you are old enough to still get misty eyed over those good old days, you will mist up. Wait for it. It’s worth waiting for.

But then there is the beginning and the middle which take some getting used to. We find ourselves in the pastel-colored twilight world of a mythical college, a montage of scenes and academic characters very faintly influenced by “Animal House,” “Legally Blonde,” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” In a sense, we’re in a fairy tale woods. There are no cell phones or computers in sight.

But here we are, ready or not, at Seven Oaks College. We meet a bouquet of damsels, all with flowery names: Lily (Analeigh Tipton) Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke.) The ladies are toted around by their ringmaster, Violet (Greta Gerwig.) Violet has her feet firmly planted in a parallel universe all her own. She is tall and blonde with startling eyes and a limitless vocabulary of quotes, misquotes and a big heart for the downtrodden. Well, sort of. The girls share a campus apartment and share Violet’s goals which seem to be getting the smelly boys to grow up. Violet and gang have a mission to clean up the smelly boy’s world of Roman (not Greek) frat houses.

Hilariously, the do-gooding group have set up, with no experience, the campus suicide prevention center, where they pursue Violet’s idea of salvation and rescue from the dark side, which includes tap dancing lessons and free doughnuts, which one has to return if they don’t commit the act.


We meet a bevy of boys and girls, clearly all the children of WASP lower New England. There is a French grad student (Hugh Decker) who seems to be channeling the late Louis Jourdan in voice, manner and looks. Hugh has a bag full of weird sexual ideas based on some medieval religion.

We meet Frank (Ryan Metcalf) who adores hacky sack bean bag balls and one or more of the damsels. Trust me, he grows on you. He is blessed with a gift for comic timing, rare in a boy his age. There is Fred Packenstacker/Charlie Walker, the make out artist with two names who doesn’t lie. He creates. This would be Adam Brody whom I’ve only seen in the 2005 Pitt Family epic “Mr. & Mrs Smith.” Adam is sitcom gold and will work forever.

Gerwig’s “Violet” is well done, and may be the center piece around which the movie is based, but suddenly Tipton as Lily, the new girl on campus, starts heating up and steals the movie. Analeigh is a curious combination of gamin and seductress. She was wonderful in “Crazy Stupid Love,” and knocked our socks off in the 2011 television comedy “Hung” with her powerful kooky sensuality and grasp of ironic comedy.

Analeigh has a face that may have been, in another life, stunningly beautiful, but one that was dropped and broken by a whimsical god and put back together in celestial darkness. The result is a combination of off-beat features that smoke up the screen. She’s wonderful. Bookmark her. She’s going to be a star.

“Damsels” is one of those movies that requires patience and good hearing aids.

Stillman’s dialogue is smart and sassy, but poorly delivered by a generation of young actors who think no one else is listening. The film takes too much time to get going, and beneath the snappy funny lines, there is an undertow of darkness that flows around Violet, and even in the finale when she channels Ginger Rogers, we wonder what post-college life holds for her.

That’s a movie I’d like to see.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

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