Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies packed a punch when he wrote it in 1930. This story of London socialites gone wild has enough drunkenness, cocaine abuse, and sexual debauchery to shock the monocle clean out of the Monopoly guy’s eye. But while Stephen Fry’s film adaptation, Bright Young Things, claims that “Some things never change,” our capacity to be surprised by lewd conduct isn’t one of them. It’s the 2K4, and if there’s one thing we have in spades, its self-destruction reference points — Bret Easton Ellis, Kurt Cobain, and Robert Downey, Jr., to name a few. Since Waugh’s time, we’ve damn near perfected immorality, amping it up into an art form.
That’s not to say all images of it are original. And the opening scene of Bright Young Things indicates its tendency to recycle, introducing its titular protagonists at an invitation-only “Inferno” party. The bright red backdrops scream outrage and hellfire while familiar big band music obscures conversation and ensures discomfort. The camerawork is shaky, messing with our equilibrium, reminding us that we are at a party (because the music, dancing, costumes, and invitation aren’t enough). Partiers act like updated versions of Dante’s demons, drinking, dancing, and doing lines. Surrounded by all this chaos, over-the-top fop Miles (Michael Sheen) asks, “Isn’t this dull?” Hard-dancing Nina (Emily Mortimer) replies, “I’ve never been more bored in my life.” The solution? Another martini, “with more than a spot of absinthe.”
It’s less than five minutes into the film and we already know exactly where Bright Young Things is going. The kids are going to keep breaking rules and their bad deeds will come back to haunt them. Fry can’t throw us any curveballs because he’s got to stick close to Waugh, so he subjects us to formulaic depravity for three-quarters of the film, with minor variations — the absinthe becomes a nose full of “naughty salt” at a tiresome afterparty, and martinis transubstantiate into champagne for a day at the races.
Of course, the kids’ lives would have been better if they had just said no, because by the closing credits, the party has ended and they’re all worse for wear. Miles must flee England (apparently because he’s about to outed as a homosexual), Agatha (Fenella Woolgar), the set’s most craven attention-seeker, is tied down in a mental institution, Nina has abandoned her hopes of living the high life to take work in a factory, and Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore) is in the military, waging war in Germany. Only the contrived ending Fry tacks on to Waugh’s story keeps Bright Young Things from concluding on a profoundly depressing note.
The plot focuses on Adam, a struggling writer and hanger-on. A customs officer confiscates his manuscript, a tell-all book about the London party scene commissioned by newspaper baron Lord Monomark (a sleepwalking Dan Aykroyd, who played a far more interesting rich guy in Tommy Boy). He has already spent Monomark’s advance, so no manuscript means no more money, and no marrying his on-again/off-again beau Nina. To get paid, Adam once again immerses himself in the party circuit and begins rewriting.
However, Monomark has other ideas for Adam after the suicide of gossip columnist Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy). Simon’s sharp eye and loose lips had made him persona non grata among the socialites, who closed ranks and stopped inviting him to their parties, ending his social life and career. After being humiliated for the final time, Simon calls in a completely fictional report, implicating a number of highly respected figures, including American evangelist Melrose Ape (Stockard Channing), in a lurid drug-fueled orgy. He then hangs up the phone and sticks his head in an oven. Needing a writer with high society connections, Monomark presses Adam into service as the new “Mr. Chatterbox,” promising him a substantial salary with no strings attached.
On the surface, this seems like a compromising situation. Will Adam write openly about his friends’ exploits? Can he turn his back on those closest to him for the “greater good” of marrying the woman he loves? Will he succumb to the job like Simon did, destroying himself in the process? These heavy hypotheticals are never answered, as Adam creates fake socialite characters to write about, dreams up ridiculous new fashions, and manages to sell papers without really harming anyone.
The contrast between Simon’s death in despair and Adam’s dereliction of duty is the linchpin of Fry’s critique of tabloid culture. But if we’re supposed to laugh at Adam’s approach, we can’t shake the image of Simon with his head in the oven. Though the suicide initially seems tragic and his final column the revenge of a desperate man, no one else gets that. Circulation increases regardless of who writes the column, so long as it delivers scandals. Here Fry’s film examines the problem of celebrity from the often overlooked angle of the people who create it, forcing us to look at our role in both the decline of journalism and the surge in star-tattling. Scribbling jokes about how bloated Dan Aykroyd looked, I definitely felt like part of the problem.
Unfortunately, this one score isn’t enough to outweigh the rest of the film’s awkwardness. Fry makes classic rookie mistakes, borrowing too much from his predecessors and failing to carve out a personal style. His party and war scenes are particularly pat, looking like they were compiled from old Merchant Ivory cutting room floor stock. His dialogue hammers the audience over the head with the contradiction between the delicacy of characters’ speech and the indelicacy of their actions.
And, with the exception of the short-lived Simon, the characters are paper-thin (Jim Broadbent, for instance, plays a drunken major who randomly crosses Adam’s path and then disappears as soon as Adam looks away). Fry often seems unsure of whether he wants to stress satire or drama, and while a good film can be both, this film is neither.