What is it about Studio 54 that makes it the symbol of an era instead of just one more defunct celebrity-studded discotheque? Whatever that elusive quality is, it's missing from writer-director Mark Christopher's 54, which examines the hard, sparkling surface of the infamous Manhattan club (located at 254 West 54th Street) without ever locating its pulse.

The storyline of 54 -- young strivers euphorically achieve "success" working at Studio 54, then graduate to somber disillusionment -- is more Boogie Nights than Last Days of Disco. Restless, ambitious and handsome, 19-year-old Jersey boy Shane O'Shea (Ryan Phillippe) moves quickly from neophyte club patron to working as a busboy to earning a coveted position as a bartender (which means access to every excess and lots of pocket change), becoming a demi-celebrity in the process.

His friend Greg (Breckin Meyer) wants a bartender's money and connections in order to help his wife, Anita (Salma Hayek), a budding disco diva, move from Studio 54's coatcheck room to center stage. But being unwilling to provide sexual favors for the club's impresario, Steve Rubell (Mike Meyers), Greg has to settle for being a busboy and occasional bagman, delivering the club's under-the-table profits to a money-laundering drug dealer.

Nobody in 54 is anywhere near innocent (each person has their own dog-eat-dog agenda), yet Mark Christopher engineers an opportunity for everyone, by turns, to display a knee-jerk naiveté. (A blow job in exchange for a job promotion? Heavens!) Even icy soap opera queen Julie Black (Neve Campbell) turns out to be a nice Jersey girl who loves bowling.

This attitude, a gee-whiz idealism that thinks these are basically nice folks drifting unknowingly into hedonism and depravity (the last throes of recreational drugs and the sexual revolution), defangs what could have been a nifty satire or compelling drama.

What's left is second-hand nostalgia, paper-thin fictional characters and an amazing performance from Mike Meyers as the club's real-life mastermind. His Steve Rubell is a puffy Pied Piper -- the benevolent, tyrannical ringmaster of his own private circus -- whose Machiavellian success is undone when he begins to believe his own hype.

Why did people clamor to be a part of this highly publicized, well-orchestrated bacchanalia? What need did it actually fulfill for the fragile egos of the rich and famous? And how big a role does self-aggrandizing delusion play in Studio 54's still-powerful hold on the public imagination?

Mark Christopher doesn't manage to answer these questions in 54. But he does show that the road of excess only leads to a palace of glitter. The real wisdom is traded for admission beyond the notorious velvet rope.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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