Who'd have thought a few years ago that the '70s--that oft-maligned, soulless, polyester era between the hippies and the yuppies--would look in retrospect so much like a pansexual Valhalla, the last hurrah before Reagan, AIDS, and crack spoiled the party? Dazed and Confused, Boogie Nights, That '70s Show, and now 54 put a rosy revisionist gloss on the Rodney Dangerfield of decades. But 54, which purports to tell the story of the prime and fall of New York's fabled disco Studio 54, suffers from too much rosiness and revisionism, and relegates both the club and the movie's most interesting character (54 owner Steve Rubell, played by Mike Myers) to the sidelines.
One problem is that 54's story line and cast are clearly aimed at moviegoers who weren't even born when Bianca and Halston were household names. The film tracks the journey of a hunky New Jersey lunkhead, Shane (Ryan Phillippe, of I Know What You Did Last Summer), who gets plucked by Rubell himself from queue of wannabes outside the club and hired as a busboy, fetching champagne and MDA for the beautiful people. Along the way he meets equally innocent Greg (Breckin Meyer, a dead ringer for E.R. 's Noah Wyle) and Anita (Salma Hayek), married 54 co-workers who hope to use the disco as a stepping stone to better things. Shane also hits it off with soap starlet Julie Black (Neve Campbell), who hopes to meet a show-biz sugar daddy who can get her into pictures.
This backstage innocence-corrupted tale is nearly as old as the movies themselves, and writer/director Mark Christopher and his game but young cast don't add much to it. (In fact, the movie is downright reactionary; except for a few creepy foiled passes and the constant presence of bare-chested male bartenders, it barely acknowledges Studio 54 as an icon of '70s gay-male sexual liberation. The sweaty romping--and there's not as much in the movie as you'd think--is all hetero.) Christopher is candid, though, about 54's ruthless culture of lookism, and how that flowed from the Brooklyn-born Rubell's equally ruthless sense of social climbing. (In one memorable scene, Myers' Rubell scolds an employee for letting "yids" into the club; the underling replies, "But they're your family.")
Playing the glad-handing, coked-up Christopher Robin of this disco neverland, Myers is terrific. Fully immersed in the character (within seconds of his first appearance, you stop waiting for him to pronounce something "shagadelic"), he provides 54's only realistic glimpse at the underbelly of the club's sex-and-celebrity worship. Unfortunately, there's too little of him. If 54 had spotlighted its fascinatingly messed-up godfather instead of the young hardbodies the filmmakers are clearly counting on to sell tickets, it might have been worth lining up for.