Amazon launched its latest “Pilot Season” today — five initial episodes that Prime members can rate according to their desire to see a potential series — and the one generating the most excitement is Whit Stillman’s “The Cosmopolitans,” the “Last Days of Disco” director’s glimpse into the lives of expatriate (mostly) Americans living in Paris. Few critics have weighed in so far, but the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, who heavily favors TV made by cinematic auteurs, is heavily in favor, deftly drawing a distiction between the “critically popular faux-observational style of drama” and Stillman’s stock characters, who ” are in a state of struggle from the moment they appear onscreen — a struggle with or against their own identities.”
Stillman avatar Chlöe Sevigny shows up for a bit as a snooty fashion journalist, but the attention is mainly focused on Adam Brody and Carrie MacLemore two gorgeously lost strangers whose paths cross at a café (of course) which leads to a party at a wealthy young man’s parents’ house where bons mots are swapped and the Sambola is danced.
Stillman is, as always, eminently willing to let his characters hoist themselves on their own pretensions: When he’s identified as an ex-pat, Brody’s Jimmy demurs: “We live here. We’re Parisians.” (Pal Jordan Rountree, with his long, narrow face and sharp nose, looks as if he should be modeling jodhpurs for Ralph Lauren.) The show, or potential show, is set in a world where MacLemore’s Aubrey can casually explain of an ex-boyfriend “We met at Art Basel,” and no one bats an eye. Actually, he’s not quite (or maybe not) an ex-; this being Paris, relationships are complicated, sprawling beyond the messy binary of on and off, which would presumably furnish Stillman with plenty of conflict if “The Cosmopolitans” goes to series.
Perhaps it’s the half-hour format, but “The Cosmopolitans” prompted me to notice for the first time how heavily indebted “Girls” is to Stillman’s work, with its diamond-cut dialogue and its excruciatingly self-conscious yet preposterously unaware characters. But where “Girls” recognizes that its protagonists can be loathsome human beings (even if not all its viewers understand them as such), Stillman resists that level of insight. It’s like being inside a Woody Allen movie without Allen’s character to point out what self-absorbed schmucks these people are. That hasn’t bothered Stillman’s fans before and likely won’t bother them now, but for all the loving shots of City of Lights scenery, “The Cosmopolitans” manages the rare feat of making Paris — or at least the self-described “Parisians” therein — seem profoundly unappealing.
Reviews of “The Cosmopolitans”
Richard Brody, New Yorker
Good talking, good dancing, good manners, good clothing, good eating. Within Stillman’s refined classicism is another sharp division of identities—between workers and drones. But it’s his very sense of beauty, his taste for the elegant moves on the board of complex social games, that crosses the lines; he makes frivolity itself seem essential, leisure a necessity, idleness an essential mode of creation—and money all the more important, yet still insufficient.
Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times
As a fan of Whit Stillman’s dry, cheerful, talky romantic comedies, I have been looking forward to “The Cosmopolitans” since it was first announced back in April. There are not a lot of Stillman movies around — he has made four since 1990, his most recent being 2011’s “Damsels in Distress” — so this addition to the oeuvre feels like a gift. And though it is very much the beginning of something, were there no subsequent episodes to come, this could nearly stand alone as a short film.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
“Cosmopolitans” isn’t as satisfying a viewing experience as “Transparent” was. There’s wry banter and a fantastic sense of place, but it really doesn’t function as the first episode of a TV show, because it just stops at the half-hour mark. Stillman told Grantland that he originally wrote an hour-long pilot, and when he wasn’t satisfied with the second half, Amazon told him to just shoot the first, and it plays that way. I like Stillman’s work enough (and am glad to see Brody in a regular series again) that I’ll watch more if Amazon orders this to series, but it’s the second-best of this wave of pilots by default as much as it is for the pleasures of Stillman’s writing.
Willa Paskin, Slate
After the café, the characters go to a party, have some more conversation, and some eventually get kicked out. They end up in cab after their semi-failed night, surreptitiously smiling only to themselves: They are young, they are in Paris, everything is an adventure, everything an experience. The show has a dedication to mood that far exceeds an interest in plot or punchlines. And the characters make for a very specific kind of company: They are so literal, so open, so irritating, so adorable, and somehow, whatever their age, so young.
Margaret Lyons, Vulture
“The Cosmopolitans” is not a mainstream show by any standard, and I can’t even think of a network where it would be at home — and this is the dream for TV fans, that the streaming universe will put out the kinds of shows traditional television would never make and couldn’t really support. If there had been another episode to watch, I would have watched it immediately. Vive les Cosmopolitans.
Mike Hale, New York Times
It’s Henry James with the nutritional value of a Ladurée macaron: Evanescent or perhaps just wispy, it seems to melt out of your mind as you’re watching it, and it’s hard to imagine that it could be turned into a series. But it’s quite amusing, especially at the beginning, and not as arch as you might expect.
Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly
This is the best of the bunch, especially if you’re partial to laughing at (or with) rich kids who have way too much time to ponder what’s on their prep-school-educated minds. It’s funny, and tender, and brimming with sharply observed conversations that cement Stillman’s rep as “the WASPy Woody Allen.” He really understands the loneliness of expat life—he lived in Paris for years—and it can’t be a coincidence that he cast Dree Hemingway, whose great-grandfather once roamed the same streets.
Eric Deggans, NPR
Sharper minds may see something of value here, but I felt like I was watching a long, badly written “Saturday Night Live parody,” with Adam Brody talking way too much and Chloe Sevigny not appearing nearly often enough. Watch only if you’re drawn to the prospect of spending a half-hour watching five people go to a party and then get kicked out of it.
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
There’s not much plot to tell: strangers meet strangers and go to parties and chat, with a little forward movement that hints the gang will be together for more adventures of an ill-defined but stylized nature. The pilot is less ambiguous than ethereal, but if you’re a Stillman aficionado then you’re probably all in. Other Amazon voters will be the intriguing x-factor.
Jonathan Leaf, Forbes
The movie has Stillman’s usual wealth of good-hearted but diffident males and sly women. But the addition of the handsome French backgrounds is an unexpected and very welcome plus. After all, who doesn’t want to hang out with fetching young people by the Trocadero and the Seine?
The show provides this.