Writer-director Stephen Fry gets the look right in his adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s acerbically funny 1930 novel “Vile Bodies,” a brutally waspish satire of the vacuously fashionable society and scandal-sheet journalism of the time. “Bright Young Things,” as he’s renamed the picture following a phrase in the book, is visually perfect–not merely in terms of its attention to the period detail (much praise to production designer Michael Howells, art director Lynne Huitson, set decorator Judy Farr, costume designer Nice Ede and makeup and hair designer Peter King), but in the atmosphere of sparkling decadence he achieves in concert with Henry Braham’s splendidly evocative cinematography. But Fry misses too much of Waugh’s cooly flippant, almost savagely scathing tone. The problem isn’t so much with what he omits, though some deliciously wicked stuff has been jettisoned (most notably the whole hilarious subplot about old Colonel Bount’s inane project to make a movie on the life of John Wesley); it’s that he adds elements of emotion and even sentimentality that are simply alien to the book’s ironic spirit. The result isn’t as damaging as the nonsensical alterations that Oliver Parker made to “The Importance of Being Earnest” back in 2002, but they mean that Fry’s film isn’t really faithful to Waugh; and while it will still offer mild enjoyment on a very different level from the book, it’s decidedly inferior to it.
The plot remains largely focused on a young couple–impoverished would-be author Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore) and flighty, bored Nina (Emily Mortimer)–whose intended marriage is imperilled by his lack of funds and habit of losing whatever money he does scrape together, and her inclination nonchalantly to look elsewhere when his problems seem insurmountable. But while in the novel even these two are treated as being as shallow and inane as all the other characters who bustle about them, in Fry’s re-imagining they’re given a “depth” that’s much less brittle. By far the worst example of this comes in the final sequence that Fry has concocted to resolve their relationship, which is positively weepy and bathetic, about as far removed from Waugh as one can get. But there are other similar missteps. Consider, for instance, the fate of Miles Malpractice (played boisterously–perhaps too much so–by Michael Sheen). In the book, his forced exile from England is simply mentioned in passing, without care or comment; but Fry turns the departure into a big “moment,” complete with tears and regrets. (It’s almost as if the director, who has himself played Oscar Wilde, had to emphasize that here’s yet another example of a man wronged by Britain’s cruel aversion to “the love that dare not speak its name.”) Or the demise of wacky Agatha Runcible (played with lunatic glee by Fenella Woolger). I’m not certain the film even mentions her death, but Waugh did, in a snide comment that emphasized how few mourners had shown up at her funeral. Another example of Fry’s inclination to soften what mass audiences might find too harsh has to do with the story of Lord Balcairn, the first Mr. Chatterbox (expertly done by James McAvoy). The picture is reasonably faithful to the book in depicting the gossipy journalist’s being detected at the party he’s snuck into disguised, but when it comes to the false reports he submits to the paper before committing suicide (again, a scene played for too much pathos), there’s an important change. Fry has him file made-up stories about wild, uninhibited goings-on among his upper-crust targets, which is good for an obvious laugh. But Waugh’s approach was much more pointedly satirical: he had Balcairn’s story depict hysterical religious conversions and tear-stained confessions of misconduct–a swipe at heart-on-sleeve religion, not social excess. (Indeed, Fry has systematically excised most of the book’s religious satire, perhaps to avoid giving offense in that regard. Thus Stockard Channing’s Mrs. Ape has been turned into nothing more than a cameo, a stereotypical harpy of an evangelist, and it’s actually difficult to discern that the character played by Richard E. Grant is a priest, Father Rothschild.) The effect of these and other alterations is largely to defang Waugh’s original, turning it into a much more comfortable takeoff on harmless British eccentricity, akin to one of those English sitcoms that PBS stations resolutely run. In Fry’s hands Adam, Nina, Miles, Agatha and all the others become rather cute–something one would never call Waugh’s originals. And then he compounds the problem by introducing a character–a race-car driver–to chastise them for their cavalier lack of concern for rectitude and responsibility–a major lapse from the spirit of the source. Less problematical, but hardly illuminating, is Fry’s invitation to us to compare the journalistic tactics of the thirties newspapers to the “paparazzi” excesses of today’s tabloids; in this respect one notes the unfortunate expansion of the part of Chatterbox’s publisher, the Canadian Monomark, who, in the distinctly unsubtle hands of Dan Aykroyd, becomes a sort of bulbous stand-in for Rupert Murdoch and his ilk.
All of this leaves one to search for individual, passing pleasures of performance, as well as decor, to make “Bright Young Things” more than just a misguided bauble. Moore and Mortimer wear their clothes well, and she at least maintains the pose of snooty disdain well enough (he shows the nervousness beneath the veneer a bit too readily), but neither of them really seizes the screen. McAvoy, Sheen and Woolgar are more in the spirit of things, and even better are the older actors–Peter O’Toole as the potty Blount (although the character loses much from the omission of that Wesley film), Jim Broadbent as the Drunken Major (although he’s given an end here that Waugh would have found meretricious), Simon Callow as the exiled king of Anatolia, and even nonagenarian John Mills as a dope-sniffing guest at a society soiree.
But while there are incidental moments in the picture that earn a smile or–more often–admiration for its technical craft, the sad truth about “Bright Young Things” is that it reduces what’s bracingly biting on the page to something that’s pretty but rather toothless on the screen.