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Review: '54' long on atmosphere, short on plot

Movie Strip August 28, 1998
Web posted at: 9:54 p.m. EDT (0154 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- In the late 1970s the hedonistic capital of the world was a nightclub in midtown Manhattan called "Studio 54." Park Avenue socialites, blue-collar construction workers, gay men and celebrities from film, fashion and television all mixed under the glittering disco ball in a former TV studio that had been turned into the nightclub of the century. Now the film "54" attempts to recapture that era.

"54" is set in 1979 at the peak of Studio 54's magic and decadence. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Americans were being held hostage in Iran, and inflation was rampant. But inside Studio 54, a huge party raged on night after night, fueled by casual sex (before AIDS), and massive drug use (before rehabilitation centers became multimillion-dollar operations). Just being there made you feel you were at the most exclusive party in the world.

The plot of "54" is as simplistic as the four-beat rhythm of disco music and just about as boring. Ryan Phillippe plays Shane O'Shea, a young guy from New Jersey with dreams of crossing the Hudson River and making it in Manhattan.

His innocent good looks promise to be his ticket to the big time when he's spotted by the gay owner of Studio 54, Steve Rubell, played to perfection by Mike Myers.

Raunchy romance

O'Shea is straight; after he's hired as a busboy at the club he manages, barely, to stay out of the clutches of Rubell. Instead, he's swept into a raunchy romance with a music executive, Billie Auster, played by Sela Ward. I'm sure that Ward's part was much larger in the original script. Otherwise I can't imagine her taking the role, which is mainly limited to a tacky sex scene with Phillippe.

But the object of O'Shea's true affection is an ambitious soap opera star, who is also from the wrong side of the Hudson. Her name is Julie Black, and she's played by Neve Campbell, who manages to deliver a couple of decent scenes in this formulaic film.

Salma Hayek plays a coat-check girl who is a wanna-be disco queen but doesn't quite hack it.

Writer and director Mark Christopher has nailed the ambience and attitude of Studio 54, but he got the title wrong. Nobody who really went there called it 54. It was always referred to as just Studio.

And dramatic license is one thing, but Christopher's script makes it appear that Rubell ran Studio all on his own. Wrong -- he was the driving force behind the club but had little to do with its nuts-and-bolts operation and rarely interacted with any of the hired help. His partner, Ian Schrager, had a lot to do with the success and the running of Studio. Michael Overington, Studio's manager, hired and supervised the staff. Neither of them are ever mentioned.

Setting a dead ringer

But the movie's interiors and exteriors are dead ringers for the real thing. The music also rings true and sweeps you right back to 1979. Yeah, I was there.

Myers is perfect as Rubell, and it's great to see Sherry Stringfield (who left the successful TV show "ER" last year) again ... this time as Rubell's loyal bookkeeper at the club. Phillippe also turns in a solid performance. Lauren Hutton, Michael York and Thelma Houston appear in minor roles, giving the film a very thin illusion of the actual celebrity gridlock that occurred at Studio night after crazy night.

But what plot there is, is way too reminiscent of "Saturday Night Fever." And the ending? Trite is too kind a word.

Studio was infamous worldwide, and I'm sure there will be a curiosity factor drawing the many people too young to have been there. But the definitive film about that unbelievable time, and place, is yet to be made.

"54"is rated R for sex, strong language and scenes showing drug use. It runs 89 minutes.

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