Bright Young Things (R)
Every once in a while the Masterpiece Theatre crowd needs some fresh blood to avoid a slow and painful death by fossilization. The old codgers need a good kick in the pants from time to time to keep from falling asleep. Stephen Fry's Bright Young Things, an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's jazz-era farce Vile Bodies, does its best to satisfy both needs. In the film's opening sequence, the young and idle rich, some dressed in zebra costumes, are seen cavorting about at a lavish party, snorting cocaine off ladies' bosoms. So much for death by boredom, you might say, until you hear one of the bright young things say, "I've never been more bored in my life," and seems to mean it.
Fry, a veteran British actor, preserves the flavor and much of the plot from Waugh's wickedly funny lampoon of upper-class hypocrisy. He wisely keeps much of Waugh's plot intact: Adam, the film's protagonist played by Stephen Campbell Moore, arrives in Dover by ferry. He's trying to make it to London to sell his first novel, called Bright Young Things, and marry his beautiful fiancee Nina (Emily Mortimer). But his hopes are temporarily dashed when port inspectors confiscate his book as smut and promise to burn it. Penniless, Adam desperately tries to raise the money he'll need to get married by performing card tricks, betting on horses and even becoming a newspaper gossip columnist. Meanwhile, the bright young things around him burn brightly, seemingly always at a party snorting half of Colombia's national product through their noses.
Moore does an admirable job as the sincere and striving Adam, his face always showing creases of strain under the socially required happy mask. But even this earnest character does not hold himself above printing fabrications in his newspaper column. He and his upper-class misfit cohorts, like flamingly gay Miles (Michael Sheen) or the woozy Agatha (Fenella Woolgar), find themselves in endless madcap misadventures.
The characters traipse through the usual Masterpiece Theatre sets, boozing and cavorting in Victorian hotels and at the racetrack. Fry also wisely preserves many of Waugh's best slapstick lines, such as when the prime minister wakes up one morning and finds his daughter has allowed the bright young things into 10 Downing Street after a night of debauchery. "Suddenly the door opened and in came a dancing Hottentot woman half-naked," the prime minister says before noticing Agatha, the Hottentot, sitting at his breakfast table. When "Midnight orgies at No. 10" makes the headline in the papers, it brings down the prime minister's government. But to the bright young things, this is only a lark.
As in Waugh's novel, all of the characters are caught in a kind of drunken delusion while dark shadows lurk not too far below the surface. Europe in the 1930s is undeniably headed toward war (Waugh published Vile Bodies in 1930 and accurately predicted the outbreak of World War II). Fry's movie, for cinematic purposes, emphasizes the reckoning that takes place as the bright young things' lives begin to unravel as the nation plunges into war.
It's here that the movie (unlike the book) becomes much more conventional, not nearly so delirious. After all, now that the new Masterpiece Theatre generation is hooked, they've got to be dragged to reason.
-- Dan Wilcock
Chapel Hills 15