Bright Young Things

I have not read Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Vile Bodies,” on which the film “Bright Young Things” is based, but seeing the movie makes me think the book must be excellent. The film is a droll Jazz-Age satire of London’s privileged, useless young people, with some sparkling wit and clever plotting. It does not showcase any of those qualities enough for it to be a fantastic movie, but it is a good one, and it gives the impression that it comes from stellar material.

It is set in the 1930s, when England was between wars and the monied younger generation lived from one party to the next. The film, adapted and directed by British actor Stephen Fry, depicts these parties as wildly debauched, throbbing with cocaine, sex and alcohol, and attended by people who have titles like Lord and Lady and Earl and whatnot, but who don’t do anything with them.

The escapades of this crowd — these bright young things, if you will — are chronicled daily in the newspapers’ gossip columns, notably by someone called “the Chatterbox” in the Daily Excess (a fantastic name for a newspaper, to be sure). When the Chatterbox job becomes vacant after a fabulous bit of libeling, struggling young writer Adam Fenwick-Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore) is hired by Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd), the Canadian millionaire who currently runs the Excess.

Adam wrote a novel that was confiscated by customs officials, and he’s been trying to earn enough money to get married — not because his beloved, Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer), insists he be rich, but because their society does. The wedding keeps being postponed as Adam’s financial situation goes from one fortune or misfortune to the next.

The comings and goings of the idle rich are amusing to behold, particularly as we are able to look down on them for being so shallow and purposeless. That said, Adam’s eventual disgust with the lifestyle feels just as superficial, not to mention obligatory: It is the lone character arc in a film whose characters pride themselves on never arcing.

Stephen Fry starred in the 1997 film “Wilde,” so it is not surprising that “Bright Young Things” often feels like an Oscar Wilde play, and even has some plot points that resemble Oscar Wilde’s life. I liked this film, but it’s a hard one to peg. Its social satire is not, in the aggregate, strong or biting enough to make it a complete success in that department, and the characters — even the leads — certainly aren’t well-drawn enough to be an effective story, you know, like with a point and everything. It feels somewhere in the middle, with many spirited performances and lively supporting characters, but ultimately as purposeless as the characters themselves.

B- (1 hr., 44 min.; R, mild profanity, some very mild sexuality, drug use; the MPAA rated it R for the drug use alone, even though it's not depicted graphically or frequently..)