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That the buttoned-down British are capable of voluptuous binges is not one of the better-kept secrets of post-Victorian literature and cinema. Nonetheless, here comes writer-director Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things to alert us yet again, opening with the jungle-jazz beat of Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” and the camera executing a handheld gallop through a costume party illuminated by the flashbulbs of scandal-sheet photogs. Evidently, things are about to spin out of control.
If only. This agreeably fast-paced movie, actor-author Fry’s directorial debut, is a credible adaptation of novelist Evelyn Waugh’s mordant Vile Bodies. But wherever it deviates from its source, it makes the narrative more conventional and the message more sententious. Predictably, one of the director’s fundamental lost causes is attempting to increase the likability of passive protagonist Adam Symmes; his diffident fiancée, Nina Blount; and their frivolous pals. Fry even suggests that bland Adam is Waugh’s alter ego, awarding the former the “vile bodies” speech that in the novel belongs to the author.
The movie cuts from the opening soiree to a ship crossing the English Channel, where penniless Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore) is about to arrive at Dover with the typescript of his novel—his chance at celebrity and possibly a respectable income. With the latter, he can marry Nina (Emily Mortimer), who finds being single—and everything else in her life—“too boring.” But a censorious customs agent seizes Adam’s book, leaving the fledgling author to pursue a series of desperate strategies to raise some cash. He begs Nina’s dotty dad (Peter O’Toole) for money, has a brief run as “Mr. Chatterbox” for the paper owned by an imperious Canadian press baron (Dan Aykroyd), and entrusts an impulsive bet on a highly dubious racehorse to a drunken major (Jim Broadbent). Remarkably, the horse wins, but then the major proves exceedingly difficult to locate.
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Although he tinkers significantly with the ending, Fry retains most of the novel’s events and characters. (One of the plot strands he did eliminate would have been a fine opportunity for inside jokes: the shooting of “the most important All-Talkie super-religious film to be produced solely in this country.”) The film faithfully follows Adam and Nina’s circle of aimless friends, notably the robustly superficial Agatha (Fenella Woolgar), the almost openly gay Miles (Michael Sheen), and the unraveling Simon (James McAvoy), Adam’s predecessor as Mr. Chatterbox. Other characters include domineering American evangelist Mrs. Melrose Ape (Stockard Channing), the conspiracy-minded Father Rothschild (Richard E. Grant), and Ceylon-tea planter Ginger (David Tennant), who becomes Adam’s romantic rival, after a fashion. Seen mostly at parties, nightclubs, races, and such, these semigloss young things party as if it’s 1939.
In Bright Young Things, that is indeed the year, and thus the ball is almost over. Both the movie and the novel conclude soon after the outbreak of war, but Waugh wasn’t evoking the renewed sense of purpose that came from standing against Hitler. Vile Bodies was published in 1930, and thus its vision of the conflict that would end London’s swinging ’30s is necessarily vague. By specifically evoking the sacrifices of World War II, Fry gives his flitting socialites a moral scalding that seems glib and unjustified. Indeed, a one-armed World War I veteran’s assertion that England needs another war to sober it up, a remark given only passing notice in the novel, accidentally becomes the film’s moral.
Thematically, Bright Young Things serves as a chaser to Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair. A century later, talented young Londoners are still trying to be fabulous without any money—or, barring that, to get some cash quickly. The two movies share something else, too: They both belong to the supporting characters, especially the older ones. With only a handful of scenes, O’Toole, Broadbent, Bill Paterson, and Imelda Staunton (the last two as the PM and his wife) upstage all the silly youngsters. Except, that is, the silliest one, Woolgar, who’s consistently amusing—and offers the choicest delivery of the chronicle’s all-purpose observation: “What an extraordinary thing.” That phrase doesn’t apply, alas, to the middling Bright Young Things: The way Fry leavens Waugh’s satire with melodrama and redemption is altogether pedestrian.
Even with the course of the American empire at stake, hype and entertainment value still matter enormously. That explains why Fahrenheit 9/11 is now in its third month while other films on similar themes have run for only a week or two. The latest such polemic, Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of the American Empire, covers all the topics mentioned in its less-than-catchy title. The movie’s principal strength, however, is its discussion of one aspect of the invasion of Iraq: how it mirrored longstanding neoconservative goals. Producer-directors Sut Jhally and Jeremy Earp offer a worthy and compelling analysis, but in terms of audience appeal, that just doesn’t compare with Michael Moore’s hassling people on the street.
Hijacking Catastrophe opens with a montage of Bush-administration heavyweights—including the nominal president himself—asserting that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. “This is what this war was about,” insists former presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer. Of course, it wasn’t. So the film turns—via a pertinent quotation from Hermann Goering about the guaranteed efficacy of manipulating citizens by warning them of foreign attackers—to an array of anti-neocon experts.
Moore’s not on the panel, but lots of other familiar Bush critics are represented, including Noam Chomsky, Mark Crispin Miller, Daniel Ellsberg, Norman Mailer, and two defectors from the anti-Iraq war party: retired Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski and former weapons inspector Scott Ritter. The most interesting statements, however, come from the creed of neocon Paul Wolfowitz and his cohorts, composed while they were in political exile during the Clinton administration. The “Wolfowitz Doctrine” extols unilateral action, pre-emptive war, and control of such strategic assets as Middle Eastern oil while admitting that the country is unlikely to take such extreme measures without a “catastrophic and catalyzing event.” Cue the 9/11 footage.
That the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks dovetailed perfectly with the neocons’ aspirations has been noted before, but Hijacking Catastrophe makes the case more effectively than any of the other films currently on the anti-Bush circuit. Too bad, then, that after that, the movie becomes routine: Ritter and others denounce the use of essentially information-free “terror alerts” to intimidate the American population, while Kwiatkowksi notes how the new American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan neatly complement existing and planned oil and gas facilities. The film also discusses TV-news warmongering, the brutality of shock-and-awe military campaigns, the Patriot Act’s assault on the Bill of Rights, and the possibly ruinous effect of unfunded military expenses on the true source of American power, the country’s economy. All of these would be useful if Hijacking Catastrophe were alone in its critique. But with so many broadsides covering the same material, the film is notable for its assessment of only one tantalizing piece of the Bush administration’s puzzling intentions.
The title Bush’s Brain suggests a sequel to Doonesbury’s series on the search for Reagan’s elusive intelligence. According to Joseph Mealey and Michael Paradies Shoob’s film, however, Bush’s brain is easily located: It’s political adviser Karl Rove, one of the many operatives and ideologues Dubya inherited from Bush Daddy. Adapted from James C. Moore and Wayne Slater’s book, Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, the film actually doesn’t have much to say about Rove’s White House role.
Moore and Slater are both Texans, so the film concentrates on Rove’s transgressions in the Lone Star State, where an impressive number of people loathe him. These detractors accuse Rove of stealing an opponent’s stationery, placing a bug in his own office so he could accuse Democrats of spying, running a “whisper campaign” against Gov. Ann Richards suggesting she was a lesbian, and initiating trumped-up corruption charges against two Democratic fundraisers that led to unwarranted 27-month prison terms. Rove’s touch is also seen in the 1990 smear of Sen. John McCain, which identified his adopted Bangladeshi daughter as a “black love child”; the successful attack on Sen. Max Cleland, who returned from the Vietnam War minus three limbs, for insufficient patriotism; and the identification of Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA agent, apparently as payback for husband Joseph Wilson’s role in discrediting Bush’s claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy African uranium for nuclear weapons.
This is noxious stuff, but not all that remarkable. Lee Atwater, Rove’s onetime mentor, probably did worse. And such tactics wouldn’t be the subject of a film if Bush had stayed in Texas, behaving badly only in statewide campaigns. To the filmmakers, Rove’s principal offense seems to be that he made Dubya—a “disaster” in his first run for Congress—a credible candidate. That was no favor to the U.S. of A., true, but it’s not a indictable offense. The connection between Rove and the bitter relatives of an American soldier killed in Iraq, who are introduced in the movie’s final chapter, is tangential, and though the many other charges against the adviser are all plausible, Bush’s Brain doesn’t actually confirm their specifics.
Mealey and Shoob concentrate on Rove without a larger context, so they never quite notice that American politicians and their handlers regularly do unconscionable things to each other, only to pretend later that they didn’t—or at least they didn’t really mean it. Among this film’s witnesses for the prosecution is McCain’s 2000 campaign strategist, John Weaver, a former Rove partner who became his bitter enemy, ultimately switching to the Democrats. The New Republic recently reported, however, that this spring Weaver began meeting with his nemesis: Candidate Bush needed McCain to boost his credibility among moderates, and the Arizona senator wanted to demonstrate his loyalty to the GOP in preparation for a 2008 presidential run. That’s how American political “brains” act: ruthless or accommodating, depending on their candidates’ current needs. Perhaps the career of Karl Rove is more than just another example of such blatant opportunism—but if so, Bush’s Brain fails to prove it.CP