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In director István Szabó’s 1981 masterpiece, Mephisto, a great ’30s stage actor tries to avoid the real world by losing himself in theatrical illusion—and winds up becoming the perfect Nazi. In Szabó’s new and far slighter Being Julia, a great ’30s stage actress uses theatrical illusion to re-engage with the real world—and takes control of her personal life. Set in a sumptuously re-created pre–World War II London, the Somerset Maugham–based comedy is a gimlet-eyed wink at life in the theater and the theatricality of everyday life. Politely married to her manager/ director, Michael (Jeremy Irons), title character Julia Lambert (Annette Bening) expresses her impending midlife crisis by flirting—and then falling in love—with an American fan, Tom (Shaun Evans). The affair goes just swimmingly until the stage diva discovers her young lover’s true, social-climbing motivation. Bening strides through her part with a giddy confidence and feline allure reminiscent of her work in Valmont and The Grifters, and she’s ably partnered with the unflappably elegant Irons—as well as a fine supporting cast in mostly throwaway roles (including real-life stage diva Rosemary Harris). But in Evans’ performance, Tom is simply far too transparent a cad. An actress with Julia’s Tallulah Bankhead archness and repertoire of crocodile tears would see through his golly-gosh posturing right from the start. And Szabó repeatedly undercuts the credibility of his black-hearted romantic comedy by uncharacteristically pushing his actors just over the plausibility line. Sure, Lucy Punch’s scheming, All About Eve–esque young actress is a delicious cocktail of baby-doll flirtatiousness and barracuda instinct, but the character poses no real threat to Julia: Her stage performances are portrayed as the work of a mugging amateur. And there are some nasty laughs to be had in watching Julia use a bit of onstage improvisation to turn the tables on husband, lover, and acting competition alike. But are we to believe that this seasoned actress would really make such a hash of the work of her playwright, director, and fellow cast members all to settle a narcissistic little score? Granted, that’s not exactly burning the Reichstag, but in Being Julia’s tiny little world, it still seems monstrous.—Joe Banno