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"Bright Young Things" is a comedy that's never funny, a period piece that doesn't know what period it's in, and a party film that leaves you with the hangover.
When writer-director Stephen Fry decided to make an adaptation of an Evelyn Waugh novel, he could have done himself a favor and not adapted "Vile Bodies." It's an episodic satire on the lives of a group of London club kids in the late 1920s that attempts to elicit laughter from the nasty ways they are run to ground by the world around them. The characters aren't meant for any deeper emotional investment than lab rats, though Fry seems to believe otherwise.
At the center of the story, in both novel and film, is young Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore), who at the start of our story has lost his prized manuscript and is desperately trying to find new sources of funding with which to marry his lover Nina (Emily Mortimer). Opportunity comes in the form of an offer from publisher Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd) who wants Adam's help "tearing the lid off the young, idle, and rich."
"I put Seignior Mussolini on the front page, no one buys a copy," he laments. "But a picture of one of your set in a nightclub, I can't print enough copies."
The problem with both the novel and the film is this interesting idea is dropped almost before it begins, in favor of a number of other outrageous episodes which seem to act on the principle that anything can be made merry provided it moves fast enough. Like a strange major who makes off with some money Adam wanted to bet on a long-shot horse. Or a party that winds up finding themselves in the Prime Minister's residence. Or a car race that loses a wayward driver. All of this is drawn out as if it were funny merely by being incongruous.
The film is worse on a few counts. First, Fry by necessity condenses the story but is at pains to include almost every character that appears in the book, as a way of facilitating assorted cameos that run from extraneous (Richard E. Grant as an angry Jesuit) to sad (John Mills as a mute coke sniffer). Second, he invests his version with an elegiac sadness that feels totally out of place in the second half. Nothing says comedy like a man sticking his head in an oven, or another tearfully discovering his homosexual lifestyle exposed.
Even the main romance, a matter of crass opportunism in the book, is presented as a kind of real love story, even heroic as the Roaring '20s zip suddenly ahead to Dunkirk and the Blitz. Fry doesn't seem to trust either Waugh's wit or his own to make "Bright Young Things" work on comedic grounds, or else he really thinks the characters worth celebrating. The result is a doubled-down waste of our time.
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