Arguably worse than a bad movie (take your pick at the local multiplex) is one that poses as a good movie, a movie that strains for something truthful but which lacks the storytelling acuity to match its own ambitions. Adapted by actor-novelist Stephen Fry from Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies,” about Jazz Age party animals, “Bright Young Things” gleams with such technical polish, courtesy of Henry Braham’s cinematography and Michael Howells’ production design, that it’s a shame that Fry—making his directorial debut—can’t spark much life and purpose from his narrative.
Budding novelist and all-around naïf, Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore) finds his marriage prospects to Nina (Emily Mortimer), his socialite sweetheart, waxing and waning along with his fluctuating finances. We’d be inclined to think of Adam as a charmingly youthful dreamer—Moore, indeed, invests him with a casual manner that disarms us right away—if he weren’t a jackass who gullibly throws his money away on long-shot bets. Indeed, the movie turns on Adam’s attempts to recover a jackpot of horserace winnings from the comically slippery and dissipated Drunken Major (played with droll, underutilized relish by the great Jim Broadbent). It’s a plotline that, in truly deft and fearless hands, could’ve made for a sly and delirious comedy of manners, something on which Fry could’ve framed his portrait of arrogant hedonists on the decline.
“Bright Young Things,” unfortunately, feels lost, adrift in a mishmash of tones and intentions. Anxious to pull together enough money to marry Nina, Adam goes to work as a gossip columnist for a Hearst-like tabloid publisher (Dan Aykroyd doing his tepid bulldog schtick). Adam’s scandal-hunting careens him into London’s 30’s-era party scene where he mingles with Nina’s fellow hard-drinking, coke-snorting revelers. Fry means to give us that eternal snapshot of dissipated youth—directionless, consumed with frivolities and fads, thumbing their noses at earlier generations. But he paints his characters in such broad strokes—the flamboyant fop, the ditzy blonde, the monied playboy and, worst of all, a high society prophetess (a painfully unfunny and uncomfortable Stockard Channing)—that they all blend together in a dull palette of social types.
As a satirical study of generational schism and tabloid opportunism, “Bright Young Things” lacks free-spiritedness and bite; Fry dotes over his characters a little too preciously for anything so bold. And his attempt to adopt a Merchant/Ivory-esque humanism after Adam’s illusions are finally shattered by betrayal also feels blunt because Fry’s script never rakes Adam over the coals enough to warrant his profound turn-of-character and, hence, to earn our sympathies. “Bright Young Things,” instead, distracts itself with tangents about slanderous reporters and society wastrels, never punching through as one man’s moral odyssey through a decadent culture in the throes of change.
Written/Directed by: Stephen Fry
Cast: Stephen Campbell Moore, Emily Mortimer, Dan Aykroyd, James McAvoy, Michael Sheen, Stockard Channing