- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

Stephen Fry, keeping out of sight while making his debut as a feature screenwriter-director, has had the diverting temerity to transpose to the screen “Vile Bodies,” Evelyn Waugh’s satire of the lingering manifestations of flapper-decade hedonism as reflected in fashionable London society at the end of the 1920s.

It’s a game try, braced by some astute casting of the youthful roles and faithful renderings of many episodes, but Mr. Fry also proves his own worst enemy. His esteem for the source novel prompts self-conscious thematic underlining and dubious alterations to the plot and time frame. Evidently uncertain about whether an art-house audience will appreciate his period evocation, Mr. Fry imprudently blurs the period on his way out.

The faithless heroine of “Vile Bodies” is a bright young thing named Nina Blount, persuasively embodied by Emily Mortimer. The book’s rambles, reversals and running gags are formulated around the courtship woes of Nina, the daughter of a senile colonel in retirement (Peter O’Toole), and Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore), an aspiring writer whose manuscript is confiscated by overzealous customs officials when he returns from a trip to France.

Well-bred and well-educated but obliged to work for a living, Adam discovers a flair for tabloid journalism during a brief tenure as society snitch for a London paper, the Daily Excess. Good fortune is a very fluid and elusive advantage in Evelyn Waugh’s comic domain. Its “now you see it, now you don’t” aspect is personified by a maddening benefactor, Jim Broadbent as a drunken major who may or may not be hoarding a tidy nest egg for the hero.

The screwball social milieu that remained permanently artificial and endearing in P.G. Wodehouse had a dreadful morning-after recoil for Evelyn Waugh, who sought reassurance in Roman Catholicism. The best performance in the movie comes from the actor cast as a major casualty of bright young desperation: James MacAvoy as Simon, the school friend who precedes Adam as the Excess’ Mr. Chatterbox, a gig so humiliating that it drives him to suicide.

Inspired by Nina, Adam takes a sanely ludicrous approach: Almost everyone in his column becomes an outrageous fictional character. But social booby traps (and boobs) are so pervasive that not even ripping brainstorms provide silver linings.

Fenella Woolgar is a delightful discovery as aristocratic playgirl Agatha Runcible, who coins such authoritative comments as “How shaming” and “How sick-making” and goes bonkers one afternoon while filling in for an injured auto-race driver. Mr. Fry has many bright ideas about how to realize the source material, but there’s something about an authorial voice that may be impossible to duplicate or surpass, even if your actors look and sound right.

Mr. Fry is slow-footed and over-explicit with certain episodes. He’s inclined to showcase despairing undercurrents, and he fiddles ruinously with the time frame, extending the plot at least a decade in order to draw on allusions to a real World War II.

“Bright Young Things” is creditable but far from a triumph. Evelyn Waugh may be one of the great comic writers who defies cinematic fidelity, even though it appears that he’s already distilled everything that needs to be seen or heard.

**

TITLE: “Bright Young Things”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and depictions of drug use in a period setting; a depiction of suicide; frequent allusions to homosexuality; fleeting nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Fry. Screenplay by Mr. Fry, based on the novel “Vile Bodies,” by Evelyn Waugh. Cinematography by Henry Brahern. Production design by Michael Howells. Costume design by Nic Edge. Hair and makeup design by Peter King. Music by Anne Dudley.

RUNNING TIME:105 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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