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.
By PETER THEIS
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.
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|
|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
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
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|
OFFOFFOFF.COM THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK
Reader comments on Bright Young Things:
Post a comment on "Bright Young Things"