Bright Young Things (6/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

If you want to know what the word “contrived” means, check out this film. Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore) places a 30-1 bet of 1,000 pounds on a horse with a drunken major (Jim Broadbent), who disappears. He shows up throughout the film in the most unlikely places, but always just out of Adam’s reach.

At the start Adam has his manuscript, entitled Bright Young Things, confiscated by a hateful customs agent. Adam is the most laid back guy you’re ever going to see. Even though he says his life is tied up in the manuscript, since he wrote it under contract to Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd), he simply walks away from it. He places irresponsible bets, with Ginger (David Tennant, in the best performance in the film), who apparently doesn’t know him, and wins. However, later in the film we learn that Ginger grew up with Emily Mortimer (Nina Blount) and had a crush on her for years. But he didn’t know Adam, with whom Emily has apparently been in love for a long time? Hmmmm.

This is loosely based on the novel Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. Waugh wrote his book in 1930, his second novel, apparently inspired by the goings on of the Bloomsbury Set, a group of artists and writers who had liberal attitudes, replete with bawdiness and free sexuality, but he set it in the future. Composed of people like E.M. Forester, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and John Maynard Keynes, they were criticized for their supposed superficiality and decadence.

Writer-Director Stephen Fry has taken Waugh’s group of gay (in its classic sense, having nothing to do with homosexuality) carefree, irresponsible young people set in the 1930s. But, while Waugh’s was a comic novel, Fry’s take is much more serious. This blunts the impact of some characters, like the drunken major and the mad Agatha Runcible (Fenella Woolgar). Instead of being funny, as Waugh intended, in Fry’s more serious setting they are simply not credible.

Adam is a penniless member of the group who is in love with Emily. The rest of their group just wants to party, party, party. One of them, Lord Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy) writes a gossip column under the nom de plume of Mr. Chatterbox for a London newspaper run by Lord Monomark. Waugh based Lord Monomark on Lord Beaverbrook, who made a fortune in Canadian cement mills, moved to London, got involved in the Government, then bought the Daily Express, which he parlayed into a media giant. So that nobody would be in the dark about the Monomark-Beaverbrook connection, Waugh called Monomark’s paper The Daily Excess.

After Balcairn commits suicide, Monomark assigns the penniless Adam, a writer who is in default of his obligation to provide Monomark with a manuscript, to take over the column. He and Nina write it, making up people and incidents, instead of using real names.

Director Stephen Fry has captured the look and feel of the ‘30s extremely well. The film is expertly edited and its quick cuts provide us with the feel of the decadent lifestyles the protagonists lead. The failure to present these people as parodies and emphasizing the tragic instead of the comedic causes this entertaining movie to ultimately fail, when it could have been something special.

July 14, 2004

The End