Mike Myers gives a sneaky, snaky performance in 54, writer-director Mark Christopher's attempt to bring back Manhattan's legendary disco, Studio 54, in order to give it the spanking it so richly deserves. The movie (as they used to say about disco) sucks, but Myers doesn't appear to have noticed. As Steve Rubell, the club's pet-of-the-jet-set co-owner, he seems lost in a world of his own, as if the three-ring circus Rubell brought to town were a drug-induced hallucination. With a pudgy prosthetic nose and dust-bunny hair, Myers is uglier than Rubell was. (Imagine Andrew Lloyd Webber after a particularly strenuous day of composing.) And he's added both a Fran Drescher laugh and a druggy smile that suggest Rubell recognized the joke life was playing on him. Some joke. Rubell and his partner Ian Schrager spent 13 months in prison for tax evasion, and Rubell died in 1989 at the age of 45. But before that, "Little Stevie Wonder" wrote the guest list and controlled the doors of the most exclusive come-as-you-are party in the history of Western civilization. Cher was once denied entry. So was John F. Kennedy Jr. So was the president of Cyprus. How a short Jewish kid from Brooklyn--"A year ago, I wouldn't have let myself in," Rubell once said--managed to claw his way to the top of the haute monde, using those claws to scratch the backs of Liza, Bianca, Andy, Truman and all the rest, might have made a great subject for a movie. But Christopher, who had other things on his mind, wasn't interested. Instead, he's interested in...the busboys! Ryan Phillippe, one of those guys who look like they're wearing makeup even when they're not wearing makeup, stars as Shane O'Shea, a kid from Joyzee with stardust in his eyes. A goldilocked Adonis, Shane first gets into Studio 54 by removing his shirt; and by the time he's done undressing for success, he's graduated from busboy to bartender. Shane's supposed to remind us of Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever--a bridge-and-tunnel rube with dreams of sleek black limos. But Phillippe doesn't have John Travolta's dramatic heft--or physical heft, for that matter. "You have the body of David and the face of a Botticelli," one of his rich-and-famous admirers tells Shane. "Yeah, David Brenner," I whispered to myself. Making a good-looking busboy the hero of our story doesn't seem so far-fetched when you consider that Studio 54 revolved around the faces of the aristocracy (Princess Grace, for example) and the aristocracy of faces. That was the peculiar genius of the place--its willingness to combine the snob with the mob (as long as the mob looked like fashion models). "Everyone wanted to go to Studio 54 because it broke down all the old-fashioned barriers between gay and straight, young and old, rich and poor," Bob Colacello wrote in his 1990 Warhol memoir Holy Terror. Rubell was trying to create what he used to call "a tossed salad" by carefully selecting the proper ingredients at the club's entrance. But Christopher sees it as more of a Caesar salad, with Rubell as Caesar. Okay, so the guy was a petty tyrant. Is that what Studio 54 was all about? Was it even what Rubell was all about? Christopher seems to think so, if only from a lack of imagination. 54 acts like Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights, but it's actually closer to Showgirls and Fame--a morality tale that reels in disgust at the thought of someone sleeping his or her way to the top. Once he's on the inside, Shane hooks up with Breckin Meyer's Greg, a fellow busboy who, like Shane, is straight. (They're the only two straight busboys in the history of Studio 54, from what I've heard.) Perhaps the most lurid scene in the movie is when Rubell, having invited Greg back to his apartment, first rolls around in cash, then propositions Greg, then apologizes, then spits up, then passes out. Greg gets away with his virginity intact--some version of his virginity, anyway. As do all Shane's friends in the busboy/hatcheck-girl crowd. Even Neve Campbell, as a soap-opera star who didn't get her job because of her superior acting ability, turns her back on the casting couch. (Campbell totally botches the role of a bad TV actress, and she is a bad TV actress.) All of this might have been forgiven if Christopher had the slightest ability to show us what it felt like to hang out at Studio 54. A rookie director, he doesn't seem to realize that cameras can, you know, move. As for his script, it makes Fame sound like Ibsen. Up in heaven, where he's probably working the velvet-roped Pearly Gates, Steve Rubell must be laughing like a hyena.
Of course, 54 has assigned him to a different disco altogether: Disco Inferno.