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Bright Young Things

(2004) *** R
105 min. THINKFilm. Director: Stephen Fry. Cast: Stephen Campbell Moore, Fenella Woolgar, James McAvoy, David Tennant, Jim Broadbent.

Bright Young Things—adapted by writer-director Stephen Fry from Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel Vile Bodies—has the right satirical snap, energetic pace, and likeable performances to stay consistently amusing. Fry takes us on a whirlwind spin round a metaphorical track. Just as desperate hanger-on Agatha Runcible imagines "all of us going round and round at a motor race and none of us will stop," her anesthetized compatriots will soullessly spin their wheels until they mercifully crash.

Fry, who's also a performer, played Jeeves to Hugh Laurie's Wooster on British television, and there's some overlap of P.G. Wodehouse's dangerously clueless twits and the social butterflies (or should that be carrion flies?) of Waugh's high society. Waugh's diagram of upper and lower crusts is more clinical (and far darker) than Wodehouse's light-hearted japes, and Fry lets the shadows creep in until we can hardly see our way out. As Adam Fenwick-Symes, the story's nominal hero, Stephen Campbell Moore resembles a sleeker Laurie. A stage actor in his film debut, Moore convincingly essays Adam's enthusiastic bad judgement and his intelligence, the latter distinguishing him from the pack of errant socialites.

Fenwick-Symes has written a novel called "Bright Young Things," and it's emblematic of the film's unsentimentality that the manuscript runs afoul of vomit and customs officials in the opening minutes. Adam must face the blustery media mogul Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd) empty-handed, but before long, Monomark has conscribed him into a job as the Daily Excess's psuedonymous gossip columnist "Mr. Chatterbox"; in this capacity, the young man's talent for fiction proves invaluable. Adam's whimsical fortunes fate him to constantly call off and on again his engagement to the lovely and emotionally variable Nina (Emily Mortimer). On the social circuit, Adam bears witness to such a lot of parties, replete with casual cruelties, "naughty salt," blaring music, and paparazzi flashbulbs (Fry opens the picture, to the pounding rhythms of "Sing Sing Sing," in a blood-red nightclub called the Inferno).

Adam's picaresque social climb takes him past a number of bizarrely funny characters who have already reached their comfortable level of incompetence: a sleepy-eyed Drunken Major with a weakness for the ponies (Jim Broadbent, hilarious); American evangelist Melrose Ape (Stockard Channing), who leads her choir to sing "the Lord don't take no crap," among other unconvincing sentiments; the King of Anatolia (Simon Callow), who's in a state of mourning over a stolen pen; and Nina's dotty father, played with explosive unpredictability by Peter O'Toole. John Mills also turns up, along with Julia McKenzie, Nigel Planer, Richard E. Grant, Bill Paterson, and Imelda Staunton.

The fragile heart of Bright Young Things beats in Agatha Runcible, who comes on strong ("So many little people—what can they all do with their lives?") before coming unglued. As played by a brilliant Fenella Woolgar, in her film debut, Agatha must eventually face that she is one of those little people she hoped to deride. Sobering developments befall most of the Lost Generation glitterati: Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy), whose "Mr. Chatterbox" cachet was his to lose to up-and-coming Adam; Ginger Littlejohn (David Tennant), Adam's sniffy romantic rival; and gay gadabout Miles (Michael Sheen), who suffers for his sexuality. Fry's wrap-up, which deviates from Waugh, uncharacteristically promises better things to come for the principal young ingenues. For the characters—and the audience—it's easy come, easy go.

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