Chris Eigeman: Metropolitan (1990) and Kicking and Screaming (1995)

I’m annoyed with myself for being unable to write up a short appreciation of Chris Eigeman here; particularly in the context of these two films. I’ve meant to do it for a while; thankfully I don’t write for a living. These two films have recently come out in Criterion editions, and both were quite excellent debut features by directors who had little idea how to make movies going into these. Though Criterion has been releasing some newer American films, I think it’s worth noting that they didn’t do a batch of Stillman or Baumbach; just these two films close together, which have in common only the presence of Chris Eigeman.

I can also say that both of these movies would be – well, not terrible – but not nearly as good without Eigeman, who raises the bar on both. (Kicking and Screaming at least benefits from a decent Eric Stoltz part, but it turns out it was written for him just as filming began, and it seems a little tacked on.)

So, I’m just throwing this out there hoping that Reynolds or someone else will pick up the ball and write somthing interesting about him and the movies he’s been in.

In a better world, Eigeman would have gone on to fuller characters playing the lead rather than the secondary guy, or at least gotten roles with more range. However, in a less perfect world, the American TV version of Red Dwarf would have been picked up and Eigeman would have been condemned to bad TV roles years earlier than it eventually happened, like a 90s version of Rene Auberjonois. So it’s not all bad.

So what happened to this guy? I’d start off by saying that the two directors who got so lucky to cast him in the first place – and kept him on for their subsequent films – failed him. Both Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach just stopped making movies. Baumbach finally returned with The Squid and The Whale – minus Eigeman – which I thought was over-praised. And Stillman stopped after the underrated The Last Days of Disco, and has not returned. Still, this shouldn’t have stopped Eigeman’s career, and it didn’t, but it did seem to keep him stuck several rungs down the ladder.

In a way, he’s kind of like a male Parker Posey – a smart-ass that kicks up every scene in which he appears, never evil, but often perceived by half the people on-screen to be unlikeable and loutish. He carved a niche on two successful TV shows, Gilmore Girls and Malcolm inthe Middle, and while he’s been seen more on those shows that he’d have been in a dozen Whit Stillman films, it’s a little sad to know that it’s unlikely he’ll now ever get the big roles that he might have been great in.

In both Metropolitan and Kicking and Screaming, Eigeman’s primary purpose is to be “a friend.” Despite his rudeness, paranoia, scheming and cutting lines directed at others, he starts both films as a friend in a close-knit group that is past its prime and just waiting to dissolve. While knowing the limits of the friendships better than those around him, he’s never the one to put an end to the group. He is simply a good friend in both these films (and in Stillman’s subsequent movies), though he does end up sleeping with his friend’s girlfriend in both films. And the girl in K&S is none other than Parker Posey, who deserves her own post.

Both of these movies tread close to being unbearable to me, yet I always come back to them and enjoy them, and mostly for Eigeman’s performances.

There’s some 2002 Frankenheimer TV film called Path to War with Michael Gambon that sounds interesting. Eigeman plays Bill Moyers, one of my favorite people. And Alec Baldwin as Robert McNamara! And Michael Gambon! Why, it’s a veritable festival of my favorite underutilized actors. Actually, Gambon is out of that club now, having gotten a couple dozen good roles over the last decade. Maybe there’s hope for Eigeman yet.

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Mark Mauer likes movies cuz the pictures move, and the screen talks like it's people. He once watched Tales from the Gilmli Hostpial three times in a single night, and is amazed DeNiro made good movies throughout the 80s, only to screw it all up in the 90s and beyond. He has met both Udo Kier and Werner Herzog, and he knows an Irishman who can quote at length from the autobiography of Klaus Kinksi.

3 thoughts on “Chris Eigeman: Metropolitan (1990) and Kicking and Screaming (1995)”

  1. I had planned on picking Metropolitan for my contribution to clubland. But the clubland idea fizzled out (thanks in no small part to my laziness) and I balked.

    I really like this film, and I’d actually thought that our discussion of Friends with Money would more than justify it as a clubland pick. There’d be intellectual momentum to build on, since both films seem so alike in terms of subject matter, atmosphere, their use of subtle irony, etc.

    I hated Metropolitan when I first saw it. Just despised the characters and felt bullied into caring about them enough to pay attention for 100 minutes. But I came back to it a year or so later and did a complete 180 degree turn. I’m not sure why. Obviously it has something to do with me. But it may have to do with Stillman’s style, which I think Nicole Holofcener borrows to a large degree (I say this not just because I saw similarities between the two films, but also because a student of mine slammed Friends with Money using the exact same reasons I used to slam Metropolitan all those years ago).

    After changing my tune about Metropolitan, I warmed up to Barcelona with great ease. That, too, would be a timely clubland choice, given its subject matter (viewing the U.S. through the eyes of Europeans). I especially like how, at times, Stillman deftly puts us American viewers into the uncomfortable position of siding with the contemptible Fred, played wonderfully by Eigeman.

    Peter Wentworth co-produced Metropolitan and he’s a Charleston local. I now feel inspired to invite him to do a special screening. If he agrees, I’ll ask him what’s happened to Eigeman since those Pac Bell commericals.

  2. I thought Metropolitan was great when I first saw it, then thought I must have been terribly mistaken, so I watched it again, fully prepared to hate it. And of course, I still liked it.

    Watching it a couple of months ago, I was struck again by how fine it seemed, after again thinking that it wouldn’t hold up 15 years on. In fact, perhaps because the characters were such borderline anachronisms to begin with (NYC debutants and their escorts) it seems to get a bit richer and more nostalgic. And it’s a fine film that can make me nostalgic for things I was not even close to being a part of. And that reminds me of Eigeman’s line in K&S:

    I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory… and I didn’t have a good time.

  3. Okay, I too love Eigeman, who I always want to spell Eigemann (and maybe that–with its echoes of Arendt–spelled his doom). He deserves Mark’s post, and John’s follow-up, and others to come.

    First, nice Rene Auberjonois joke. Don’t get too many of them. But even more it’s apt–that very fine character actor, coming out of Altman’s background company (the original Father Mulcahy!) and a helluva Fool to James Earl Jones’ Lear, ended up Bensoned into stock thin sarcastic guy characters. R.A. so embodied that role that you could almost see his rich history fade as you watched, as if he was nothing but that role. Eigeman suffers from the surplus of his gifts: so very perfect as the nasty scowl, it’s hard to even see him anywhere else.

    I won’t say much about Stillman–never found my fondness for him, and in some other post I’d take on and challenge the comparison to Holofcener–but Baumbach gave Eigeman one other great role, in fact one other role that could have, maybe should have broken him open: in Mr. Jealousy, he starts in the stock position–nasty, superior (both in his attitude and, well, actually smarter and funnier than everyone else), the foil to the romantic lead (Eric Stoltz, again). But as the film proceeds, suddenly Eigeman reveals a depth and complexity behind the front; any meanness seems to be a product of tremendous disappointment, with himself and others–he isn’t superior, he just seems to expect so much of everyone around him. And beneath the surface contempt is a willingness to give. But this never turns marshmellowy, the soft behind the sarcasm–Eigeman is pitch-perfect in never erasing those initial impressions, just deepening and complicating them.

    I’m being vague, but watch the movie. As Eigeman grows in complexity, the lead–Stoltz–becomes increasingly ridiculous, thinner and nastier and far less engaging. It’s an anti-romance, with a bit more sympathy for convention (and, well, for sympathy) than Albert Brooks’ brilliant Modern Romance, but they’re peas in a pod.

    And that’s my final point: I think Eigeman’s best hope was to find ways to really explore the depths not just of that portrait of scorn but the caverns of insecurity and anxiety that fuel it. He could have been as astonishing a character as Albert Brooks’ Albert Brooks (in the early films). But, as Brooks’ career attests, it’s not exactly a category of abundance in Hollywood–or even indie–film. We distrust irony; for all the mainstream facile chatter about a culture of irony, we are not just distrustful but almost constitutionally unable, we Americans, to really understand and appreciate and enjoy dark irony. Eigeman was almost fucked from the get-go, as he had almost no filmmakers (besides Stillman or Baumbach) who were interested in what he could offer. One can imagine Altman exploiting him; even better, Eric Rohmer, Truffaut, Malle … hell, all the guys Baumbach rips off in Mr. Jealousy.

    But here’s to him. I liked–like–all of Baumbach’s films a lot more than Mauer, it seems, and for more than Eigeman… but I agree, he’s about the best and most amazing thing to ‘discover’ in them. (And the beautiful silliness of Carlos Jacott as a close second.)

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