Not-So-'Bright Young Things'
Friday, September 10, 2004
In "Bright Young Things," they party like it's 1929.
Wait, it is 1929, so maybe they're right to party.
Derived from Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel "Vile Bodies," the movie is a portrait of a society undergoing an ordeal by festivity. In fact, one conceit of writer-director Stephen Fry (famous for his impersonation of another famous party guy, Oscar Wilde) is to dramatize parties as knots of chaos, social hurricanes that spill across the landscape this way and that, ruining lives, eating time, preventing progress of any kind. They're not orgies so much as celebrations of all that's trivial, ephemeral, gossamer, annoying and loud in the world.
The movie, alas, is shackled somewhat by Waugh's original, pedestrian plot, which is too full of discrete incidents and slow to form an overarching story. It's a fits-and-starts kind of thing, advancing three steps to the side for every step forward, possibly more enchanted with the vagaries of its own characters than we in the audience might be. Fry, a novelist, wit and bon vivant as well as an actor, hasn't quite mastered the secrets of character empathy in his first film as director.
The film follows an upper-class twit named Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore) as he tries to advance through society on the basis of charm, talent and poverty. It's not easy. Adam is a writer returning to London from Paris, and the movie opens with a wonderfully comic scene in which an officious customs agent confiscates his new novel on the basis that it's the Customs Department's job to protect the empire from literature!
Possibly because he suspects the novel stinks, Adam doesn't fight terribly hard and finds himself quickly returned to the bosom of his set, bright young things given to too many drinks before dinner, too many drinks during dinner, followed of course by too many drinks after dinner. Possibly the only meal at which they don't drink is breakfast; that's because they sleep through it. They live to drink. Par-tay, par-tay, par-tay!
But because most lives are dreary -- particularly in the first year of the Depression with totalitarian regimes astir abroad -- this set of glamorous, high-born young drunkards has captured the public imagination, and so their every move, their every spat and upchuck and lover-rotation, is chronicled in the popular press, which feeds on the scandal. So one of the film's meek narrative lines watches as newspaper magnate Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd, in what must be a parody of the Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook, the conservative press lord who dominated English media between the wars) tries to find a gossip columnist, the best possible aristo rotter to betray the set's secrets from within, under the nom de guerre "Mr. Chatterbox." Three boys have a go at the job over the movie's run: The first lad ends up killing himself after fudging stories and inventing scandals. The second is Adam, who also fictionalizes but does it so well that people start imitating his fantasies until it becomes boring and he gets fired. The third fellow is revealed by enemies to be gay and, under threat of a spell in Reading Gaol, takes off tearfully for the continent. Fry, of course, would be familiar with this social trajectory, from his days as Wilde in the flickers.
Then there's Adam's love affair with Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer), a key member of the Bright Young Thing circle. She's the daughter of screwball Col. Blount, a character who gives Peter O'Toole a marvelous few minutes of playing dottiness to the hilt. (In fact, far too many people in "Bright Young Things" are dotty; a more appropriate title for the film, since Waugh's own "Vile Bodies" was rejected, might have been "The Naked and the Dotty.")
At the same time, Adam is trying to find a drunken major with whom he has crazily vouchsafed 1,000 pounds for a long-shot bet that came in, bringing him 34,000 pounds, a small fortune. Yet the major (Jim Broadbent, hiding under a Kitchener mustache) can never seem to remember who's supposed to get the money.
Then other Bright Young Things flit and twitter through the foreground, some gay, some fey, some prey, none gray. They're young and beautiful, and not nearly as charismatic as, say, the Bloomsbury group, who may have partied just as hearty but still turned out great work; and they're not as interesting as the Auden-Spender gang of queer poets with really interesting faces who looked so good in their shaggy tweeds that five decades later Ralph Lauren made a fortune off the style. The Bright Young Things are far more like rich Generation X slackers, sustained by private fortunes but unblessed by talent or mission.
And of course it all ends in the war. That explains another weirdness of the film; it's clearly set in the very late '20s, based on the clothes, the automobiles, the dances and the music; however it ends in the Second World War, with the 10 intervening years lost or dropped. What the hell is happening? The answer is that in his novel, Waugh invented an unspecified European war for these lads to all go die in, setting the tiff in the future, sometime in the early '30s. Filmmaker Fry doesn't have that luxury; he's shackled by history, and must lodge his events in history, so as the movie has it, the year turns magically from 1929 to 1939, though nobody's body keeps up. Somebody misplaced a decade and a batch of jowls and beer bellies!