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Vile with a Smile

Stephen Fry masterfully transcribes the wit of Waugh to the big screen

Essayist. Playwright. Radio personality. Librettist. Actor. Novelist. Now, with Bright Young Things, the inimitable British wit Stephen Fry debuts as feature screenwriter and director. Best known here in the colonies either as Jeeves (opposite Hugh Laurie) in Jeeves and Wooster, or as Peter in Peter's Friends, or possibly as Oscar Wilde in Wilde, Fry establishes himself as an inspired, world-class talent behind the camera and delivers my favorite film of the year thus far.

A fairly faithful adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's trenchant novel Vile Bodies -- give or take an invented introductory sequence, a sweetened romantic angle and assorted minor tweaks -- Fry's film launches us headlong into England between the wars. Our giddy hosts are the eponymous "bright young things," the glammy, restless, 24-hour party people of 1930s England, busily getting bombed before busily getting bombed. No quantity of kicks can satisfy this lot, most of whom don't even realize that they're living in oblivion.

Our central heroes are Adam Fenwick-Symes and Nina Blount, played by gifted stage actor Stephen Campbell Moore (who should soon give Jude Law a run for his money) and seasoned indie girl Emily Mortimer (Young Adam). Their on-again, off-again romance drives the film, but they too are driven: Adam is charming but broke, and he's not Nina's sole suitor in this mad storm of youth culture. Does Adam, as party participant and detached fledgling writer, have the moxie to live the life, observe the life, cultivate a career and win the girl -- particularly when the goals are all at odds? Does Nina have the brains to follow her heart? Can love triumph over hipsterism?

Were this but a romantic comedy, it would be cute and quaint and we'd move on to the next one, but Fry affectionately and sometimes quite aggressively plumbs Waugh's sly appraisal of the fractious supporting characters, who should prove familiar to contemporary audiences regardless of their snazzy period costumes by the talented Nic Ede. It's an age of assorted dandies, bints and louts -- tarted up, liquored up, even coked up -- with newly sprung gossip mills tracking their every misstep. Again, echoes of today's tabloids.

The frazzled young Lord Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy) leads us through this labyrinth, to a point anyway, as "Mr. Chatterbox," a gossip columnist who perpetually toes the line between scooping the best parties and getting thrown out of them. Working for mad newspaper mogul and transplanted Canadian Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd) presents its share of challenges, not the least of which is that Aykroyd hasn't had a role this cool since the outrageously underrated Neighbors, and here he clearly relishes upstaging everyone via his character's disturbing monomania. It's a great performance.

It's Monomark who forms a sort of bridge between the elder, "respectable" crowd and Adam, Nina and their cohorts (including Michael Sheen and David Tennant, both fab), and this rift between generations is as smartly illustrated here as in Beat Girl or Repo Man. Adam struggles through a scene with Nina's father, Colonel Blount (Peter O'Toole, game and gamy), that should hit home for any knave challenged by decaying paternal authority. A particularly dazzling scene in this regard involves traveling religious huckster Mrs. Melrose Ape (Stockard Channing, hilarious) and awkward Father Rothschild (Richard E. Grant, superstar), and a gaggle of God's children convincing the British upper-crusties to go the way of Jesus. The scene is too brief, but it jabs the nerve center associated with organic friendships and happy cultural cross-pollination. Even given some diluting adjustments by Fry, it speaks of decay and salvation being intrinsically allied against the vital if sometimes terribly self-destructive spirit of youth.

Speaking of decay, in a radio interview a few years ago, Damon Albarn of the rock band Blur was asked what he thought to be the primary difference between British and American popular culture. He replied that since the British empire has already fallen, its people have developed an irreverent sense of humor about themselves and their overall culture. Not so their bombastic Yankee cousins, he suggested -- not yet, anyway. Fry, himself a product of the same England as Albarn, seems quite aware of this contrast, from his opening scene in Wilde, poetically addressing a gaggle of dusty American laborers, to the whole of Bright Young Things, which "foreshadows" contemporary media-mad America, increasingly besieged from beyond its borders and frequently imploding into pointlessness.

There are several sweet distractions to accompany Waugh's and Fry's bitter underlying concerns, including Jim Broadbent as the more-than-tipsy Drunken Major, who appears to hold Adam's destiny when one can find him or even understand his slurs. Give it up also to Julia McKenzie as Adam's temporary hostess, Lottie Crump, and cinematic newcomer Fenella Woolgar as Agatha Runcible, a queen of both partying and its pathetic flip side. Add in an untoward auto-racing outing and a score including period hits and original music by Anne Dudley of Art of Noise (who is becoming one of the finest popular composers of our age), and the mix is irresistible.

It's quite a pleasure to announce Bright Young Things as the finest Waugh adaptation since The Loved One, yet the film should also play well to general audiences beyond the snooty literati crowd. It's relatable. Fry not only holds up a mirror to our own dizzy, celebrity-infatuated age, but he taps several cracks into it first, for heightened accuracy.

 
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