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54

by: Scott Renshaw

Mike Myers transforms himself in 54, in virtually every way a performer can transform himself. Myers plays Steve Rubell, the nightclub impresario who created the Manhattan disco Studio 54 to be the center of the party universe in the closing years of a party decade. Rubell presides over his kingdom in a heavy-lidded barbiturate stupor, cackling in a humorless monotone as he moves among his glitterati guests. In his first truly dramatic screen performance, Myers doesn't abandon his open-mouthed little boy grin entirely; he simply turns it to the service of a character who's still a little boy, convinced he can only find friends by throwing the coolest party. Wearing Izod shirts and sweaters, thinning hair perched pointlessly on top of his head, Rubell is a proto-Gates portrait of entrepreneurial geek-dom. If people won't play with him because they like him, he'll make them play with him because they need him.

Rubell is a fascinating character, performed by Myers with a mix of savvy, pathos and self-absorption. If writer/director Mark Christopher had had the common sense to make 54 the story of Steve Rubell, he might have had a great film on his hands. Instead, Christopher makes his protagonist a New Jersey kid named Shane O'Shea (Ryan Phillippe) who comes to Manhattan in late 1979 to break away from his dead-end family. He first manages to get into the club when Rubell spots him in the crowd, then lands a job as a busboy, eventually moving up the Studio 54 social ladder to bartender. Along the way he befriends another busboy named Greg (Clueless's Breckin Meyer) and Greg's wife, aspiring disco diva Anita (Salma Hayek). He also becomes infatuated with Julie Black (Neve Campbell), a soap opera ingenue whose Jersey-to-the-big-time success story inspired him to action.

54's base-line narrative is so trite it almost plays like a parody, a disco-era goof on Midnight Cowboy or some far less seminal corruption of the innocent melodrama. Naturally the fame and flash go immediately to Shane's head, as he poses for modeling shoots and buys a Camaro with personalized plates; naturally he is lured into a sordid world of sex and drugs; naturally he begins alienating his friends and family with his arrogant behavior. Christopher heads down every obvious path in the interactions between Shane, Greg, Anita and Julie, apparently oblivious to the fact that every one of those characters is a piece of cardboard. Perhaps it was his idea of irony: like Studio 54 itself, his movie invites people in so they can stand around and be attractive.

The plotting is so relentlessly predictable that the film doesn't even work well as a sociology lesson. Occasionally it offers peeks at the side rooms or basement hot spots where the elite met to revel in their eliteness; every once in a while it focuses on the politics of succeeding in an environment of glamour for glamour's sake. Shane's voice-over narration dutifully informs us why Studio 54 was so unique and so popular, but there's never enough energy for us to believe him. 54 spends 91 minutes pointing off-handedly to this or that detail like a bored tour guide. For a film that includes money-laundering, ripping off the mob, sex, drugs, celebrities and plenty of boogie oogie oogie-ing, it almost never gets the pulse jumping.

The notable exceptions are the scenes involving Myers as Rubell. Sure, the character isn't perfectly realized; in fact, it probably seems better simply because it's surrounded by so much uninspired junk. There is something undeniably intriguing about Rubell, however, as he rules his gaudy playground with only occasional flashes of glee. It's also amusing watching him announce on a talk show that "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom" after we've watched him lying in a pile of money, drooling vomit. T

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