Early on in Stephen Fry's riotous "Bright Young Things," an angel on the deck of a steamship vomits on a young man's head. The young man is Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore), a penniless but well-connected novelist whose fortunes flip like flapjacks, and whose on-again, off-again fiancée, the lovely and studiously jaded Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer), kindly goes along with the fantastical idea that she'll one day become his wife.
The nauseated seraph is a girl in an angel costume, either Chastity, Endeavor, Divine Discontent or another one of the morally dubious acolytes of Mrs. Melrose Ape (Stockard Channing), an American evangelist traveling to London to tend to the souls of the shallow, degenerate, but otherwise too divine upper classes.
That's a modest sampling of the characters that populate the mad whirl of fun and morning-after melancholy that is "Bright Young Things," which Fry, an accomplished actor and writer, based on Evelyn Waugh's "Vile Bodies." Published in 1930, the novel was set sometime in the "near future, when existing social tendencies have become more marked."
Of course, by now, those "social tendencies" — tabloid culture, youth culture, celebrity culture, club culture and no culture — are off the charts. But, happily, Fry resists the urge to update the material. Nor does he fossilize it. His "Bright Young Things" is set in an amalgam of the late 1920s and the early 1930s, so that the height of the Jazz Age is squashed up against the outbreak of World War II.
There are other minor changes, most notably a tacked-on, though utterly forgivable, happy ending. Nonetheless, "Bright Young Things" is as faithful to the spirit of the novel, and the era that inspired it, as a movie could be yet still feel as fresh as Paris Hilton dish on Page Six. Fry deftly turns Waugh's loony, abstracted characters — Lord Outrage, Lady Chasm, Lady Throbbing, Miles Malpractice, Lottie Crump — into pure, fume-like distillations of the age. They're noxious, but alluring. And he infuses the Deco gorgeousness of the period with a pulsating, club-kid energy that results in a priceless hybrid — Merchant Ivory on Ecstasy.
Adam and Nina belong to a set of young aristo-bohemians called "bright young things" by the gossip columns. The bright young things clash with the establishment — that un-understanding older generation comprised of clergymen, evangelists, prime ministers, colonels and very rich men who continue to demand more, forgive less and thwart their silly children's progress, before finally sending them off to war. The kids get back at them in spades. Hatter-mad party girl Agatha Runcible, played by newcomer Fenella Woolgar, brings down the government one morning just by showing up for breakfast.
Not that the oldsters behave any better. At Lady Metroland's party, the ancient Sir John Mills sniffs cocaine through a straw as Mrs. Ape's angels sing. ("Ain't no flies on the lamb of God ")
Fry's adaptation transposes the gossamer of Waugh's dialogue and his icicle wit from page to screen without coarsening it. "Bright Young Things" revels in the absurdly catchy locutions of its in-crowd. (It's really too, too sick-making.) Better still, he translates the story of a romance imperiled by money without upsetting Waugh's delicate balance of satire, melancholy, disappointment and a sense of the absurd.
The cast is as enormous as it is spectacular, including virtually unknown young actors like the muppet-faced Moore and the throbbingly fluorescent Woolgar. Michael Sheen and James McAvoy shine as tragic young men Miles Malpractice, the gay son of Lady Metroland (Harriet Walter), and Lord Simon Balcairn, the reluctant gossipmonger. Sheen is as caustic as McAvoy is tremblingly vulnerable.
Mortimer, who was touching as the fragile actress in Nicole Holofcener's "Lovely and Amazing," is far more resilient and resolute here as Nina, and yet her melancholy seeps through her party-girl pose like damp. Jim Broadbent is hilarious as a drunken major. But for sheer, inspired, raving lunacy, it's hard to beat Peter O'Toole as Nina's father, the cinephile Col. Blount, who keeps forgetting ever having met Adam moments after meeting him. Perhaps the only discordant note is struck by Dan Aykroyd, whose newspaper-tycoon Lord Monomark is drawn on a different scale, as if he's acting in another movie, possibly one directed by the Coen brothers.
(He does have a great line, though. As he says to Adam, after hiring him to replace Lord Balcairn on a gossip column, "Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to poke and pry.")
It's obvious why Fry chose the more attractive title "Bright Young Things" — and the more attractive 20s and 30s, which yield some gorgeous party sets and costumes — rather than Waugh's original. But the way he's spun it, it hardly matters in the end. The characters in the movie are as bright as they are vile, the flip side of fun is disgust, and love and sentiment are delicate flowers constantly trampled in the constant stampede of human stupidity. But there they are, anyway.
'Bright Young Things'
MPAA rating: R for some drug use.
Adam...Stephen Campbell Moore
Lord Monomark...Dan Aykroyd
The Drunken Major...Jim Broadbent
A ThinkFilm release. Director Stephen Fry. Producers Gina Carter, Miranda Davis. Executive producers Andrew Eaton, Michael Winterbottom, Stephen Fry, Chris Auty, Neil Peplow, Jim Reeve, Steve Robbins. Screenplay by Stephen Fry, based on the novel "Vile Bodies" by Evelyn Waugh. Cinematographer Henry Braham. Editor Alex Mackie. Costume designer Nic Ede. Music Anne Dudley. Production designer Michael Howells. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
In selected theaters.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun