3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Stephen Fry's "Bright Young Things," like the novel from which it was adapted-- Evelyn Waugh's 1930 British comic gem "Vile Bodies"--is a brilliant, giddy satiric romp with a discreetly moralistic viewpoint beneath its high-style wit.
The movie is about sinful pleasures and the follies of youth--and it's a ball to watch. Fry, in his writer-directorial debut, achieves a wonderfully light, brisk comic tone. He takes Waugh's tale of the orgiastic excesses of the younger British celebrity social set between World Wars I and II (the "bright young things" of the title) and turns it into a succession of glittering set-pieces: madcap parties, feverish romantic adventures, breathless horse and auto races and boisterous swing-music dances full of plastered aristocrats jitterbugging to Benny Goodman, and Louis Prima's jazz classic "Sing, Sing, Sing."
The younger characters--writer Adam Fenwick-Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore), his on-again-off-again fiance Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer) and their delirious social set--are the '30s equivalents of a Paris Hilton: hedonistic kids who live on their parents' bounty or for their friends, flitting from party to party.
Though few of them work, their names keep popping up in gossip columns, since others in their set actually write those columns. Threadbare aristocrat Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy) pens the scandal-packed "Mr. Chatterbox," which is later taken over by the set's social arbiter, Miles (Michael Sheen). It's even run for a while by main protagonist Adam--before he's fired by the unctuous Canadian-born press czar Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd).
The spine of the story is the blighted romance of Adam and Nina, set against this backdrop of desperate frivolity, with the next war lurking in the wings. Adam, penniless despite his high life, keeps trying to win the approval of Nina's decaying, dotty father, Colonel Blount (Peter O'Toole), while Nina is simultaneously wooed by a genuinely rich young sportsman twit, Ginger Littlejohn (David Tennant).
The specter of wealth haunts Adam and leaves him prey to the stupidity of a censorious customs inspector (Jim Carter) who confiscates his novel and the whims of his publisher-boss Monomark (Waugh's wicked sendup of the real-life Lord Beaverbrook). Trying to rise to Nina's level, he wins 1,000 pounds gambling and stakes it all in a long-shot horse race bet, placed by a mysterious figure, the "drunk Major" (Jim Broadbent), who keeps teasingly appearing and disappearing, supposedly with 34,000 pounds Adam may have won.
Fry is less of a religious moralist than Waugh, but he's more scathing about effects of undeserved wealth. Money and fun don't come to these bright young things as fruits of any labor, the film suggests, but through family connections or pure bleeding luck. Meanwhile, the dance twirls on, until--as in the poignant mental hospital scene with emotionally fragile Agatha Runcible (Fenella Woolgar)--one of the butterflies crashes and burns. Or until war temporarily halts the madness. ("Vile Bodies," published in 1930 but set "in the near future," actually predicts World War II.)
"Bright Young Things'" hectic playfulness may pall for some, but it struck me as an incredibly entertaining film with a magnificent cast. As the lead romantic couple, Mortimer and Campbell Moore are delightful and deft. All the other actors shine as well, from stage-trained newcomers like Woolgar to Oscar-winning vets like Broadbent and John Mills (in a cocaine-sniffing cameo). And we haven't even mentioned Stockard Channing as the bellicose evangelist Mrs. Melrose Ape or Julia McKenzie of "Sweeney Todd" as salty hostess Lottie Crump and Bill Paterson as ill-tempered Sir James Brown.
If the material suggests a Monty Python remix of "La Dolce Vita," the film's captivating style suggests the '60s "Swinging London" comedies of Richard Lester with a bit of Bob Fosse's "Cabaret." Fry obviously adores Waugh's novel and its cornucopia of comic invention; thanks to ingenious compression, he preserves much of it. Despite the silly title change, perhaps dictated from fears that "Vile Bodies" might bode a horror movie, this film gets the flavor of the book: its acid whimsy and sophisticated play.
Fry, whose excellence and exuberance as comedian and writer have long illumined the films of others (whether as Oscar Wilde or Jeeves), proves a splendid director capable of visual dazzle and superb ensemble work. He recaptures both Waugh's humor and the past of the roaring '20s and '30s so engagingly, we may forget that past isn't our present. But, in a way, Fry keeps reminding us, it is. Bright young things may pass, but folly is eternal.
"Bright Young Things"
Directed and written by Stephen Fry, based on a novel by Evelyn Waugh; photographed by Henry Braham; edited by Alex Mackie; production designed by Michael Howells; music by Anne Dudley; produced by Gina Carter, Miranda Davis. A THINKFilm release; opens Friday at the Landmark Century Centre Theatres. Running time: 1:46. MPAA rating: R (for drug use).
Nina Blount - Emily Mortimer
Adam Fenwick-Symes - Stephen Campbell Moore
Simon Balcairn - James McAvoy
Ginger Littlejohn - David Tennant
Lord Monomark - Dan Aykroyd
The Drunk Major - Jim Broadbent
Mrs. Melrose Ape - Stockard Channing
Colonel Blount - Peter O'Toole