Today the ancient world and its ways are all but forgotten, but there was a time -- 1888, to be exact -- when Caroline Astor (Meryl Streep) reigned supreme. She was the arbiter of the 400 (so-called for the number of guests who could fit comfortably into parties in her Fifth Avenue ballroom) and, with her fainéant husband, Waldorf (Dan Aykroyd), ruled New York high society from the Metropolitan Opera to the Metropolitan Club. Sneering at upstart Vanderbilts and the louche taste of Rockefellers, kowtowing to visiting royalty at just the correct level of deference, advising presidents' wives on which fork to use for the hors d'oeuvres, she was peerless and unchallenged.
Suddenly all New York is a-twitter at the arrival of the world-traveling Shah of Persia (Dustin Hoffman) with a full suite of 23 concubines, 84 eunuchs and countless servants and advisers and oud-players. Orientalism on the march! But where will they stay? (It's high season, and the Waldorf-Astoria on 34th is booked for a political convention to nominate Grover Cleveland (John Goodman).) (The Plaza, of course, hasn't been built yet.) Nonplussed, but not for long, Mrs. Astor is soon all steely resolve:
She and Waldorf will avoid confrontation by closing the house and fleeing to their country cottage, Hot Gates, 92 rooms in extravagant beaux arts style far, far up the Hudson with a view of the shimmering Catskills across the river. There (with a few dozen friends) they can be alone at last. Ladies' badminton in the long, lazy afternoons (to keep in shape for those low-shouldered gowns you know), while the gentlemen play golf in gaiters, and Madame Lehmann herself (Jane Eaglen) arrives from the Met to warble Casta Diva (auf Deutsch) after dinner. The Shah will never find them there. Or so she thinks.
But there is a serpent in her paradise: socialite Edith "Pussy" Jones (Chloe Sevigny) thinks a little crisis on the international scale would rightly shake up the stultified class into which she was born, and she betrays the whereabouts of -- and forges an invitation to -- Hot Gates for the amorous Shah of all the Persians. Escorted by a skeleton force of two battalions of New York's Finest, 19 dancing girls, and a percussive corps of janissaries (I know, I know -- janissaries are Turkish -- it's Hollywood, they never get the research right), Shah Dustin rushes up the river to hurl himself at the feet (and dinner table) of Streep.
Is Mrs. Astor up to the challenge? Does the Brooklyn Bridge go to Brooklyn?
Marshalling her diamanté troops ("Ladies -- tonight we dine in hell. Family hold back"), she confronts the bedazzled and beturbanned one with an 18-course hot dinner on a 90-degree evening with the western sun in the dining room windows, an experience that might easily kill anyone not used to whalebone corsets and boiled shirtwaists. The girl is good. Her cooks are game. (When not fainting from overwork.) The family guests are flawless. The Shah is demolished. Pussy Jones gives up her plan to challenge the supremacy of the 400 and marries some dimwit named Wharton who will take her to France so she can become an interior decorator. The Persians retreat.
"You can still make the 11:19 back to town at the station at Marathon, N.Y. if you trot," says Mrs. Astor sweetly. "It's 26.2 miles, but downhill all the way."
"Just wait till we get the bomb," mutters the Shah under his breath.