A glittering cast of known and unknown thesps have a ball in “Bright Young Things,” a slick, no-nonsense adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Vile Bodies,” which sardonically painted the fast Brit set of the early ’30s. Timely paralleling today’s celebrity-obsessed age, pic is an easy-to-digest slice of literate entertainment for upscale and older auds that lacks a significant emotional undertow to make it a truly involving — rather than simply voyeuristic — experience. Following its warm reception at the Toronto fest, this sprightly helming debut by English writer-comedian Stephen Fry goes out in Blighty Oct. 3.
Fry, whose own career has evoked shades of a latter-day Oscar Wilde-cum-Noel Coward and himself went through a bruising brush with celebrity’s downside, was an apt choice for bringing Waugh’s second novel to the bigscreen. “Vile Bodies” (1930) branded Waugh, then in only his late 20s, as a witty chronicler of London’s flapper age. Fry’s script hews fairly closely to the novel, apart from a brief coda revisiting three of the main characters in more straightened times. Even here, however, there’s little poignancy brought to bear on the protags’ lives and condition.
Main title, punchily set to a jazz classic, and set sometime in the late ’20s, plunges into the hedonistic world of posers and aristos with one of three lavishly staged party scenes that paragraph the picture. (Each has its own color scheme, doused in red, silver and more conventionally lavish tones, respectively.)
Post-titles, circa 1931 wannabe writer Adam Fenwick-Symes arrives in England from a spell in Monte Carlo clutching his first novel, “Bright Young Things,” a portrait of the era written under the pseudonym Sue de Nimes. Unfortunately, the manuscript is confiscated by an overly moralistic customs officer (Jim Carter), so Adam arrives empty-handed at the office of his publisher, newspaper tycoon Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd, in a gleeful parody of real-life Canadian print baron Lord Beaverbrook).
Unfazed, his lordship tells Adam he’ll just have to write it again, so the penniless young scribe, equally unfazed, phones his g.f., Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer), and tells her their marriage will have to postponed.
Adam’s half-hearted struggle to raise enough coin to make him marriageable material for the superficial, money-obsessed Nina is the closest the script (mirroring the novel) comes to a plot.
One of the delights of the movie is the way in which the characters — many of them broke — breezily float through life with no thought of a financial safety net. Though Adam is partly an observer of the scene, he’s also a participant, and newcomer Stephen Campbell Moore (from legit) is aces as the slightly dim social butterfly who manages to be sympathetic while being as amoral as many of his more extravagant friends. As Nina, who’s more into partying than actual sex, Mortimer is almost as good.
Little of consequence happens during the first half, as the film wheels on one after another Brit character actor in robustly overcooked roles. There’s Julia McKenzie as the eccentric hotel owner; Jim Broadbent as a drunk major who holds the key to Adam’s financial security; Peter O’Toole, in for one sequence as Nina’s potty, ex-military father; and even, in a microscopic cameo, John Mills, 94, sniffing coke.
Though Stockard Channing, as the sole U.S. thesp, gets a little shortchanged as a gospel-preaching choir mistress, most of these character turns work well, keeping the pic bubbling. In one of the best sequences, flapper Agatha (legit actress Fenella Woolgar) realizes she’s stumbled into the breakfast room of a well-known, socially uptight family (Bill Paterson, Imelda Staunton, excellent) after a particularly heavy night.
It’s when the film tries to get even a tiny bit serious that the lack of emotional underpinning starts to show. After a young gossip columnist (newcomer James McAvoy, very good) sticks his head in a gas oven and Adam is given his job, pic looks like it will develop some teeth as Adam and Nina decide to send up the whole social whirl by inventing stories and faking fashion trends. But this idea is only flimsily developed, as is the whole Adam-Nina story as she starts to cozy up to the pocketbook of a con artist, Ginger (David Tennant).
Fry’s script fillets out even the few traces of a darker underside that creep through in the second half of Waugh’s original. Modern auds, accustomed to more emotional payback for the characters’ earlier excesses, will come away empty-handed. There’s basically very little dramatic arc to the whole picture.
Still, Fry and his tech team have put together a good-looking, smooth-running movie that never spends too long picking the daisies. Production designer Michael Howells and costume designer Nic Ede create the period with convincing naturalness, and Anne Dudley’s original score and musical arrangements jolly things along. Only major glitch is an imbalance between effects and dialogue in some scenes, with Mortimer’s throaty voice often indistinct.