Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies is sometimes hailed as the funniest book ever written in English. Stephen Fry's film adaptation, Bright Young Things, is alas, not the funniest thing I've seen since The Daily Show last night. How things went awry is an object lesson in the perils of translating art from one medium to another.
An actor (best known, perhaps, for his title role as Oscar Wilde in Wilde), novelist and scriptwriter, Fry directs Bright Young Things with so much breakneck energy we're nearly 30 minutes into the film before we begin to figure out which characters are important and which ones are just window dressing. We think for the longest time that we must be in the 1920s. Characters make scornful references to talking movies, which began in 1927, and everybody is doing the Charleston, drinking champagne and wearing flapper costumes. The parties flow together so relentlessly it's not clear when the partiers have time to change clothes, much less bathe and rest.
Perhaps the Waugh/Fry conceit is that the inter-war decadence of the European moneyed class stretched so seamlessly from one debauch to the next that nearly two decades disappeared in an alcoholic haze. Whatever, we eventually discover that we're not in the 1920s but in the '30s in that time of self-indulgent oblivion visited by Bob Fosse in Cabaret and Robert Altman in Gosford Park. The world is about to turn upside down once again in World War II, but our hedonistic Brits care only about who is getting invited to the next big shindig. They all speak in ironic exaggerations, their every pronouncement punctuated, often in combination, with such words as "terribly," "scandalously," "dastardly," "beastly," "extraordinary." Everyone complains about being "frightfully bored," and one character describes her life as "unbearably unbearable."
Our protagonist is Adam Fenwick-Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore) who, for reasons never explained, has been abroad for some time where he's written a novel, evidently about all the people we will meet upon his return. Adam is educated (we're not sure how) but so utterly poor he can't pay his lodging bill and can't afford to marry his fiancée, Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer). When customs officials at Dover seize his manuscript as smut, he's suddenly in debt to his publisher for an advance he's already spent.
Adam is inconvenienced by these developments but neither as outraged nor desperate as, say, an actual human being. La de da, I poured my soul into that book, and it was ever so good, but say, old chap, is Archie's next party dress or dress-up? About the time we figure out Adam is the fellow we're supposed to be most concerned with, he wins an improbable bet of 1,000 pounds (more than a year's salary for a middle-class man of the era) and so promptly squanders it that we lose all potential regard for him.
At parties along the way we meet Adam's social set, all living on inherited riches, all ever so torpified by the current party but nonetheless desperately curious about when the next party starts. We can barely tell these folks apart, and even if that's on purpose, it's not a good strategy. In the end, they are headed for bad times. One commits suicide. One goes insane. Two are driven from the country under threat of arrest, one for homosexuality, another for black marketeering. And we can muster not a single smidgen of sympathy for any of them.
I'll concede Fry manages some funny bits along the way. For a time Adam takes a job as the social columnist "Mr. Chatterbox" for a scandal rag published by Canadian mogul Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd). Adam's charge is to spy on the party set and reveal them as doing the most objectionable things, all the while avoiding landing Lord Monomark in court with a libel suit. Adam's solution to this paradoxical assignment, presaging Jayson Blair, is to pass colorful fiction off as fact.
Events, activities and even people spring forth from his typewriter to enrage and sate Monomark's readers. And along the way, things Adam invents later come to pass. He "reports" on the new "rage" for wearing green bowlers, and pretty soon men are wearing green bowlers. Elsewhere, one of Adam's acquaintances claims to have known one of Adam's inventions "absolutely forever darling." Fry also wrings humor from Nina's repeated declarations about her dislike of sex: "I'm happy that you enjoy it, dear, but as for myself, I'd ever so prefer to visit my dentist." The funny passages here, though, elicit smiles not bellylaughs. I haven't read Vile Bodies, and I can certainly imagine how this material is funnier and more telling on the page than on screen. One worries that Fry knows the novel too well and treasures it too much. Certain Anglophiles may relish what he's rendered here. But most American moviegoers will find the humor too arch and the characters too irresponsible to be worth wasting time on.
- Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer) smirks her way through pre-World War II Europe in Stephen Fry's Bright Young Things.