07 April 2012

The plural of doofus

(c) Sony Pictures Classic

On Friday I caught Whit Stillman's 2011 feature Damsels In Distress with Jennifer at the Rialto in Newmarket, which featured as part of the World Cinema Showcase that's running for the next couple of weeks. It's the story of four young women at the fictitious Seven Oaks University, and their quest to humanise the patently inferior males of their college. Violet, the lead do-gooder, is played by hipster icon Greta Gerwig, who improved Ben Stiller's flawed black comedy Greenberg, and leads the way in fostering the betterment of the infantile and immature males on campus, including her clueless boyfriend Frank.

This is a low-budget comedy that deserves a broader audience and could well develop a cult following in years to come. Stillman's script is pleasingly wordy, and although Gerwig's performance is curiously stilted and she is a little too close to 30 to play a young college student, the quality of the dialogue is still obvious. My favourite line was the matter-of-fact digression of two of the girls into the correct plural form of the oft-needed and entirely apt word 'doofus', which, it turns out can be both 'doofi' in the more correct, Latin-originated form, or 'doofuses' in the more commonly-used but slightly less polished colloquial sense. Either is fine.

The story has fun with a subplot revolving around the clever outsider Lily (Analeigh Tipton) and her suave European boyfriend Xavier, whose penchant for Cathar philosophy brings some surprising and unexpected complications to their love-life. It's all played wonderfully deadpan by the supporting cast, much like clueless frat-boy Thor's heart-felt plea to refrain from judging him simply because he's reached college age without having learned to distinguish the colours of the visible spectrum. Carrie MacLemore also impresses as the prim and perky Heather, with her comic timing and delivery of lines replete with airy nonsense.

Many films in recent years have latched onto the notion of ending on a high by deploying a song and dance finale - Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire to name but three - and Damsels In Distress manages to top that with not one but two: a doubtless out-of-copyright Fred Astaire number illustrated with a tongue-in-cheek soft-focus campus promenade, and a daffy take on Violet's big ambition - starting a world-spanning dance craze.  Everybody do the Sambolo now!

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