directed by Mark Christopher
(Miramax, 1998)

Nothing says the '70s like Studio 54, that Manhattan dance palace of excess built on the proposition that what most people really love is rejection -- other people's, that is.

In 1979, crowds line the streets waiting for club owner Steve Rubell to say whether or not they've made the grade, based mostly on how well they were dressed or how they appealed to his prurient interests. Most people never got inside Studio 54, and most of those never reached its inner sanctums -- the balcony, the DJ booth, the private basement -- where "glitterati" like Andy Warhol basked in their 15 minutes of fame.

Now, thanks to Mark Christopher's 54, the rest of us get a peek behind the strobe lights to see what made Studio 54 tick until it exploded. But Christopher's 54 is no Travel Channel documentary.

Christopher presents the club through the adoring eyes of Shane O'Shea (Ryan Phillipe), a Jersey City gas jockey who rises to the spectacular height of bare-chested bartender in just a few months' time, through no fault of his own.

Shane is taken in by 54 bus boy Greg Randazzo (Breckin Meyer) and Randazzo's wife, Anita (Salma Hayek), who lives to be the next Donna Summer. Their stories help make 54 a kind of Grand Hotel done in disco time.

But even as a triumvirate, Shane, Anita and Randazzo are no match for Rubell (Mike Myers), the ringmaster of this disco-driven circus where the freaks -- most of whom are either luded or deluded -- pay good money to get inside just so they can entertain one another. It's an ingenious operation, complete with trash bags full of cash in the ceiling, but then Rubell was an ingenious entrepreneur, a Brooklyn boy who vowed, in Shane's words, "to throw the best damn party the world had ever seen and to make it last forever."

But Myers proves no less ingenious. Whether he's leering at the dancers from the dizzying heights of the DJ booth or at a buff bus boy in his private office, Myers gives us a Rubell who's at once fantastic and believable.

When he's not hard at work and high on pills, he's crawling onto a bed full of bills, only to end up puking on them. Myers has come a long way from Wayne Campbell's couch.

For just as Rubell was the club, Myers is 54. He dominates nearly every frame, even those he's not in, and Christopher's few excursions outside Rubell's sphere -- Shane's trip home to see his family on Christmas or his ill-fated romance with soap star Julie Black (Neve Campbell) -- only reinforce the notion that Christopher never should have taken the camera off Myers.

But perhaps the true measure of Christopher's genius is his ability to find something of substance to say about a culture in which everything was judged by appearances.

In pushing aside the tinsel, turning down the music and leading us into the bowels of Studio 54, Christopher shows us the depths to which people sink when they place superficiality on a pedestal. He also takes us to one heck of a party -- even if it only lasts 93 minutes.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

Buy 54 from Amazon.com.