Damsels in Distress - Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Greta Gerwig and Analeigh Tipton
Oddball roommates Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Violet (Greta Gerwig) and Lily (Analeigh Tipton) deal with suicide, sex and the salutary effects of scented soap © 2011 Sony

Droll, deadpan and deliciously dry, Damsels in Distress may be the most irresistibly witty comedy of the year. Written and directed by Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco), this quirky college-based farce is what you might get if Wes Anderson decided to make a Gossip Girl movie. Not everyone will appreciate the movie’s offbeat ambience, but those who enjoy the idea of an English course called “The Dandy Tradition in Literature” are certain to be amused.

Greta Gerwig stars as Violet Wister, whose precise vocabulary, flatly direct delivery and innate sense of irony bring to mind nearly every character Jason Schwartzman ever played. She’s a junior at the fictional Seven Oaks University, which exists in a timelessly square setting that looks like the dress-wearing 1950s even though Violet bemoans the fact that there are fewer handwritten notes “now that most correspondence is electronic.” Her goal in life is to create a dance craze, because she maintains that they enhance and elevate the human experience.

Her equally odd roommates are the striking but snobbish Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), whose overly posh British accent is a joke in itself, and the girlishly naive Heather (Carrie MacLemore), whose lunkhead boyfriend Thor never learned his colors. Comparatively sensible transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) humors their attempts to indoctrinate her into the ways of a school that has Roman-letter fraternities and a campus newspaper called The Daily Complainer, whose editor Violet proclaims is “unkind, self-righteous and pedantic.”

Damsels in Distress - Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody
Violet (Greta Gerwig) and Charlie (Adam Brody) share a fondness for personal reinvention © 2011 Sony

Even level-headed Lily eventually gets caught up in the low-key looniness. Boyfriend Xavier (French-accented Hugo Becker, who actually is a Gossip Girl regular) tells her that his religion regards the use of condoms as “a parody of the procreative act.” Lily goes along with his creed’s awkward birth-control alternative, leading Violet to announce later that “he just used her body — and not even the right side.”

Gerwig is excellent at solemnly delivering Stillman’s sparklingly silly dialog as if all of Violet’s pronouncements are perfectly reasonable. Her solution to preventing suicide attempts by education students, who keep failing because they insist on jumping from a two-story building, is to send them soap that has a “transformative scent.” She uses words like “worrisome,” “foreboding” and “tailspin.” She’s every grad student’s goofy guilty-pleasure dream girl, or nightmare, or both.

Violet finds herself charmed by the dapper Charlie (Adam Brody), who turns out to be leading a double life. “He’s lying,” she says upon discovering his deception. “I find that very attractive.” That may have something to do with Violet possessing a secret background of her own.

Writer/director Stillman uses blackouts, scene-separating title cards and not one but two ultra-low-budget production numbers at the end, in addition to an odd line-dance interlude at a Texas-themed bar. There’s also a running joke about the girls volunteering at a suicide center that uses donuts and tap-dancing as therapy. A helpful hand-painted wall poster says “Come on, it’s not that bad.”

If clever but coolly absurd movies like Rushmore or I Heart Huckabees aren’t your glass of sherry, Damsels in Distress may leave you staring at the screen with the blank incomprehension of Beavis and Butt-head watching an R.E.M. video (“college music sucks!”). But if you’re the kind of smugly self-satisfied sophisticate who appreciates the blatantly condescending elitism of that last sentence, this is the movie pour vous.

[Rating: 4.5 stars]

Damsels in Distress is released in US and Canada on April 6, 2012. UK release is April 27, 2012.

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James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.