EVELYN WAUGH thought movies vapid and dishonest, one of the evils of the modern age. In the Waughian universe, the film industry attracted self-promoters and hucksters, always at the ready to trade their own self worth for a bloated swell of bogus importance. Hollywood is the setting for the displaced English gentlemen in The Loved One, for example, and in Vile Bodies (1930), Colonel Blount acts, donates his house, and loses a fortune in a terrible historical film about John Wesley.
But this scene from Vile Bodies is excised from Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry's recently released film adaptation of the book in America. The scene's details--a hilarious misunderstanding of the word "shooting," the cheery fabrication of Wesley's life, and Colonel Blount's debasement of his ancestral home--disclose Waugh's bleak belief that movies distort and destroy the integrity of everything.
Nevertheless Bright Young Things (Waugh's working title for Vile Bodies) is a funny film. Like the book, the film is essentially a pastiche of incidents in the lives of people who relish seeing their names in gossip columns. It follows the misfortunes of Adam Fenwick Symes (played by Stephen Campbell Moore) who arrives in England from France, only to have the unpublished novel that was to be his livelihood confiscated by customs officials. ("If we can't stamp out literature from the country, we can at least stop it being brought in from outside.")
So Adam, now penniless, calls his fiancée (Emily Mortimer): "I say Nina, I don't think we shall be getting married after all."
Fortune dances before Adam, flying away every time he almost grabs it. He makes £1,000 on a bet, and then bets that money again on what he finds out right after is sure to be a losing horse. He receives a £1,000 check from Nina's father--only to find that it is bogus because Colonel Blount (Peter O'Toole) signed it "Charlie Chaplin." He gets a job as a gossip columnist, but loses it when Nina writes the column for him and unknowingly disregards instructions from the newspaper's imperious owner, Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd). Adam gets engaged and disengaged to Nina with every turn of his luck, and eventually, she leaves him for Ginger (David Tennant)--who buys her from Adam for the sum necessary to pay his hotel bill.
Adam and Nina belong to a group of bright young things, who fester merrily in an incestuous atmosphere of gossip and scandal. It is here that Fry's film shines, both in the cast of character actors he assembled and in his evocation of a bright, colorful and supremely fashionable place where nothing much matters except having fun. The smart set hop from party to party, dinner to dinner, viewing everything through snobby and derisive eyes which coddle feelings of boredom and superiority.
FENELLA WOOLGAR is perfect as Agatha Runcible, the dippy socialite. (In Vile Bodies, Agatha "heard someone say something about an Independent Labour Party, and she was furious that she had not been asked.") Woolgar speaks the haute vernacular ("too, too shaming") with all the mannered inflections of a woman who makes a charming persona out of being self-conscious. Jim Broadbent, as the drunken major, valiantly maintains his stiff upper lip even as his speech is slurring, and Stockard Channing as the money-grubbing evangelist Mrs. Melrose Ape with her coterie of pre-pubescent "angels," bellows a sanctimonious holiness through the most decadent of parties.
Fry has said in interviews that the reason he wrote the script and directed Bright Young Things was because he saw Vile Bodies as a contemporary book, paralleling our own society's obsession with gossip and celebrity. The comparison is mostly valid, but Vile Bodies is not, at its essence, a book about gossip and celebrity. Though funny, it remains a dark and grim book about a society racing toward its own oblivion. The bright young things have not-so-bright endings: Runcible dies in the loony bin, Balcairn the gossip columnist gases himself, Ginger betrays his friends, Nina becomes an adulterous mother, and the former angel Chastity finishes as a prostitute. The book leaves the depthless Adam on the battlefield, his promised fortune of £35,005 worthless, about to be carried away by the "swirling tycoon" of the war.
Fry increases the bright young things' bad behavior: They all snort cocaine, for example, and it's hinted that some support Hitler. But in the flippancy of his narrative, Fry removes the gloom in the otherwise gay lives of the characters--which allows him to distort the ending. Bright Young Things ends on a note of maturity and sweetness, as if the vile bodies came to the realization that there was more to life than an endless succession of parties.