If every new generation fancies itself upping the ante of hedonistic behavior, the pleasure seeking of youth under the cloud of war is something else altogether — feverish, depraved and heedless, with an undertow of barely acknowledged desperation. That’s the subject of Vile Bodies, a pithy satirical novel in which the hard-partying English upper crust, trapped between world wars, takes a drubbing from the acid pen of Evelyn Waugh. Waugh, who came from the professional middle class, was a clear-eyed critic of the rich and ranking, but he was also a shocking snob who in later life tried to retool himself as a landed gent. Lacking an aristocracy of their own, Americans have always had a weakness for this sort of thing, which is why the drippy, sycophantic Brideshead Revisited enjoyed much greater success in this country than have such incisive critiques as Scoop (Waugh’s skewering of journalistic ethics), The Loved One (ditto of the funeral business) or his first novel, Decline and Fall, some of whose characters re-appear in Vile Bodies. I doubt whether Stephen Fry’s fine interpretation of Vile Bodies (wimpily re-titled Bright Young Things) would ever have gotten off the ground were it not seen as an opportunity to draw parallels with our own less-than-belle époque of the 1990s.
Waugh’s novel, which tracks a fast set partying itself into a stupor in London on the eve of World War II, must have been a bitch to adapt. Cinema has always been an uneasy medium for satire, which is more dependent on dialogue than on visual flair. Most of the characters, who boast Dickensian names like Margot Metroland and Mrs. Melrose Ape, are thinly disguised caricatures of well-known British figures of the time. They’re made for the stage, whereas in a movie we expect them to become real people. And the novel, which turns on the on-again, off-again engagement of two of the young carousers (played in the movie by the suitably vaporous duo of Stephen Campbell Moore and Emily Mortimer), is rather feebly structured around an endless round of onscreen partying that promises to be only marginally less tedious than actually attending such festivities.
Fry adroitly turns most of these obstacles to his advantage. Each of the parties is wittily color-coded — the movie opens on a club decked out in sumptuous red and black. Fry has Waugh’s viciously precise ear for trendy linguistic affectation (“How positively sick-making . . .”), and he’s added a few updated zingers of his own (the drug of choice in Fry’s 1930s bacchanals is “naughty salt,” taken through the nose). And being who he is, he has transformed something wild into something Wilde — the movie is littered with mannish women and girlie men. Waugh, who meant to take a pickax to the callow surfaces of a class of overprivileged airheads, and hang their sexual preferences, would be horrified. But there’s no denying that Fry’s movie is all the livelier for its gay embellishment. Bright Young Things has its share of big names: Dan Aykroyd as a publisher based on Lord Beaverbrook, and Peter O’Toole as a syllable-mangling old country squire, are a hoot, and Stockard Channing appears to brief advantage as a cunning American evangelist based on Aimee Semple McPherson. But its brightest stars, and those who get the best lines, are its campy, sexually ambiguous newcomers — a very funny Michael Sheen as the queeny doper Miles Malpractice, and a wonderfully daffy Fenella Woolgar as Agatha Runcible, a pinstripe-suited bubblehead who’s the center of the movie’s farce and, as things turn out, its big hint at the dark forces that will bring this flighty bunch down to earth.
It’s here that Bright Young Things falls down on the job. Waugh’s achievement in Vile Bodies was to plant rumors of war without missing a satirical beat — sentimentality was anathema to him. Far from ignoring the novel’s dark, decent subtext, Fry overdoes it to a fault, undercutting the satire by humanizing his characters and slipping in an altogether gratuitous redemption at the end. Waugh would howl in anguish. Wilde would find it as funny as he did the death of Little Nell.
BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS | Written and directed by STEPHEN FRY Based on the novel Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh | Produced by GINA CARTER and MIRANDA DAVIS | Released by THINKFilm | At the Sunset 5 and the Playhouse 7