Sunday, September 26, 2004

Bright Young Things

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

Sadly, Stephen Fry is in his mid-forties, and probably both too old to play a Bright Young Thing and too vital to play a character like Jim Broadbent's Drunken Major. Fortunatley, he's available to make his feature writing and directing debut.

In America, the "Gilded Age" is said to be roughly from 1890 to World War I; it seems like an appropriate description for the 1930s London depicted in the film. The title characters are attractive, titled if not actually monied, and at least speak well. Underneath, though, things aren't so pretty. Nina (Emily Mortimer) won't marry Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore) until he's solvent, but his first novel has been detained at customs. Like the rest, their existence seems to be a steady stream of travel, parties, drinking, cocaine (I do like the euphamism "naughty salt"), and not taking anything seriously. The only ones who appear to be gainfully employed are the ones who write gossip columns about the others for the entertainment of the masses.

What's really quite remarkable is the amount of affection Fry (working from the novel Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh) manages to get us to feel for these characters. They're shallow and near-complete libertines, but they're self-aware and capable of pathos when the real world finally catches up with them. The downside of this is that Fry never really goes in for the kill with the satire; even the song he penned for a visiting religious group ("Ain't No Flies on the Lamb of God") isn't as vicioulsy funny as it perhaps could be.

The plot is rather thin - it's got the form of a romantic comedy, as Adam tries to make secure his position with Nina, whose fickleness is one part shallowness and one part practicality, but the movie happily takes regular side trips. The end is a bit forced, both in terms of jumping forward in time and somewhat ham-fistedly using WWII as a means to make the characters take stock (although I gather the book did that too, quite a neat trick what with it being written in 1930 and all). Makes for a fine and fitting final scene, though.

I'm a fan of Fry - when I heard Bright Young Things was playing the Boston Film Festival, I joked that if I wangled an interview, it would quickly devolve into something like "The Chris Farley Show". He's extremely talented, as a comic actor and a writer in just about every medium he's tried (television, stage, print, radio, and film), and here shows potential as a screenwriter and director. His directorial debut is solid, and well worth a look.

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