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    Bright Young Things

    Party like it's 1929

    "Bright Young Things," an overly cluttered adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's "Vile Bodies," richly evokes the party atmosphere of the 1920s before burying it in moralistic condemnation.


    Irony is dead — a hip, empty platitude which has been a favorite of lazy cultural observers of our post-9/11 world. "Bright Young Things," adapted from a 1930 Evelyn Waugh novel and directed by English actor Stephen Fry, aims to jauntily dramatize the slow death of irony and playfulness in another milieu altogether, pre-WWII England.

    Written and directed by: Stephen Fry.
    Adapted from the novel "Vile Bodies" by: Evelyn Waugh.
    Cast: Simon McBurney, Stephen Campbell Moore, Fenella Woolgar, James McAvoy, David Tennant, Julia McKenzie, Stockard Channing, Alex Barclay, Simon Callow, Bruno Lastra, Guy Henry, Bill Paterson, Imelda Staunton, Harriet Walter, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Broadbent, Lisa Dillon, Stephen Fry, Mark Gatiss, Richard E. Grant, Emily Mortimer, Alec Newman, Peter O'Toole, Robyn Parton.
    Cinematography: Henry Braham.
    Edited by: Alex Mackie.

    Related links: Official site
    The film depicts a group of youthful aristocrats and artists who partake in the delights of what passed for decadence in that period, primarily drug use and busting gender conventions at extravagant theme-galas. Although it's largely an ensemble piece which follows several storylines ą la period-contemporary "Gosford Park," the central characters are young writer Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore) and his love, the aristocratic but unfunded Nina (Emily Mortimer). Like the rest of the bright young things, Adam and Nina are radically flip in all matters and to one another, but the interpersonal insouciance plainly conceals deep emotions (not unlike Brett and Jake of the '20s-era "The Sun Also Rises," as Hemingway fans might perceive). However, practicality seeps in like the rosy fingers of dawn at an all-night rave, and Nina, having never received a sincere declaration from Adam, and having no means of support, abandons him for another.

    Bright Young Things  
    Meanwhile, the film is dense with incident among both protagonist Adam (who writes a tabloid gossip column about fictitious society figures and trends) and the supporting cast. However, these incidents are so disparate in tone and purpose as to create a bit of cacophony and ultimately undermine the dramatic structure. There is broad parlor-room caricature, the self-consciousness of which is implied by the very names of characters such as "The Drunken Major" (the always excellent Jim Broadbent) and "The King of Anatolia" (Simon Callow). But the film also vertiginously veers to the other end of the spectrum, straining for trenchant pathos. In this mode, it depicts the suicide of an impoverished young nobleman, a death caused in part by the callousness of the socialites who owed their notoriety (the new currency of high-society status) to his gossip columns. This occurs early, and foreshadows the stronger moralizing to come.

    The film also strives for carnassial satire and parody in the mode of Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," tearing apart especially the hapless elder aristocrats who try to keep pace with the trends, vices, and ironical posturings of the younger generation. The satiric sally with the strongest critical bite is directed towards the emerging culture of the tabloid, with its morally vacuous, Murdoch-presaging titans (embodied here by Dan Aykroyd), its millions of followers hungry for sensation and scandal, its power to bring down even the highest leaders through suggestive innuendo, and its prurient orientation hypocritically dressed as moral exposé. On this point, however, the film hoists itself on its own petard. It falls prey to a double consciousness not unlike that of the tabloid culture it depicts, attempting to both celebrate the salacious, unhinged license of '20s decadence and moralizing against it at the same time. The moralizing comes in the second-half of the film, when the inevitable, rueful "hangover" phase kicks in. The leader of the bright brat pack (stage actress Fenella Woolgar, easily the best principal in the film) goes mad ... you see, the partying, having fun was madness all along! The film hammers the message home again in a little phone homily delivered by Adam, who rails against the superficiality and insincerity of it all. In other words, irony should be killed; sincerity is the sole province of the mature. Makes one pine for the times when films did not assume that good times always must have repercussions ("Bachelor Party" anybody?) and be proof of a shallow existence. Or, at the very least, it makes one pine for the times when flapper joie de vivre was perceptively depicted as a thin faćade covering deep unhappiness and uncertainty ("The Great Gatsby"), rather than bad-in-itself.

      Bright Young Things
    At any rate, the multiple projects undertaken here — comedy, satire, parody, portrait of a relationship, complex subplots, and the maturation of a generation — are simply too many. While a novel is well-suited to juggle all these aims, the format of film creates two limitations. Most obviously, a limited running time only leaves so much room to develop each project. Thus, each is squeezed and truncated, sapping its force. Second, narrative film, like theater, depends on successful dramatic structure. Here, with so many characters, aims, targets, and messages, and years covered, it feels as if the events and actions of the characters are simply that, events happening without particular rhyme, reason, or dramatic purpose. "Bright Young Things" is not without satisfying moments of humor, and it is a richly realized evocation of the style, vernacular, and look of a flamboyant period. Too bad it suffers from overambition and a frumpy dowager's moral perspective.

    AUGUST 20, 2004

    Reader comments on Bright Young Things:

  • Fate of Agatha?   from angela, Nov 15, 2005
  • Bright Young Things   from Me, Apr 29, 2006

  • Post a comment on "Bright Young Things"