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New Line Home Cinema presents
"So many little people. What can they all do with their lives?"
DVD ReviewEvelyn Waugh's 1930 novel Vile Bodies is a satire of the hedonistic lifestyle of the "bright young things" of British society pre-World War II, crowds of disaffected socialites who wouldn't think twice stepping over a dying homeless man on their way to a night of debauchery at an exclusive costume party. Their antics made headlines, and society life captured the attention of the public, even as it outraged the government, law enforcement, and the church. It's hard not to be reminded of modern-day socialites like Paris Hilton, people who serve no purpose in the world other than to fill up gossip columns with the sordid stories of their empty exploits. Now, even 75 years later, Vile Bodies has lost none of its relevance, making it the perfect source material for the moral satire, Bright Young Things
The plot is fairly simple, despite distractions from dozens of tertiary characters. Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore) has returned to England after living overseas. He's written a novel about the shallow creatures of society that he hopes will provide him with enough cash to marry his love Nina (Emily Mortimer). But the book is seized at customs as filth and Adam is drawn back into a life of garish parties and narcissistic pursuits. He wins money gambling, then gives it away at the drop of a hat, and when it looks like he won't have the cash to marry Nina, her attention quickly wanders to someone more financially equipped to bankroll the lifestyle to which she's become accustomed. In order to make some extra cash, Adam takes over the role of "Mr. Chatterbox," a society column in a paper published by Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd) that seeks to sell papers by splashing the front page with the orgiastic exploits of the societal elite (after all, a story about out of control orgies will sell better than one about Joseph Stalin). Thrown into the mix are small glimpses of the empty lives of other members of the upper class, men and woman who spend every day at parties they find frightfully dull, always bored but surely never boring.
Actor Stephen Fry makes his late-blooming debut as a writer/director, and acquits himself nicely. Rather than fall prey to the usual period drama trappings (Bright Young Things by way of Edith Wharton), Fry allows the glamorous excesses of his characters' lives to shine through with a visual style that is equally over the top, and manages to define them well enough even in a short amount of screen time. Unfortunately, the satire is broad but fairly toothless; it's almost as if Fry is too concerned with keeping his troupe likeable, and has ultimately dulled Waugh's razor wit to a nub—what remains looks like a blade, but it isn't going to do any cutting.
The first British film to go through digital color grading (or so says Fry), Bright Young Things brings to mind the frantic style of Baz Luhrmann, with garish use of color, exaggerated acting, and even they occasional instance of stylistic editing hyper enough to cause bouts of nausea. The images give the film an energy all its own, and also give it more of a chance of connecting with the same audience that turned something like The Rules of Attraction (and if ever there was a story of vile bodies...) into a cult hit. The lavish production design doesn't hurt either. The costumes and sets are right in line with the rest of the visuals, particularly during the decadent party scenes scattered throughout (including the Hades-themed Inferno early on, and a bright white angelic ball that comes later).
The cast is full of familiar British actors, and they're great fun to watch, even if each seems to be acting in a separate film. Lead Stephen Campbell Moore doesn't have the charisma to carry the picture, and though Emily Mortimer looks beautiful, it's hard to buy her as a convincing love interest, considering her general indifference to Adam. The side characters are an equally beguiling collection of oddballsÑAykroyd channels J. Jonah Jameson from the Spider-Man movies, while Peter O'Toole beams in a delightful cameo from the moon as Nina's scatterbrained father. Stockard Channing has a very small role as a pious woman trying to convince members of the society they won't need a hand-basket if they don't straighten up. Michael Sheen plays a flamboyant homosexual trying to keep his sexuality a secret (a guess "gaydar" hadn't been invented yet... though he is British, so I guess you've got to give him the benefit of the doubt). Fenella Woolgar, in her film debut, stands out among the crowd of young things, and her Agatha has one of the only scenes possessing any true emotional content (though given that she delivers them from a bed in a mental ward, while possibly out of her mind, undercuts the sentiment somewhat). Also watch for miniscule cameos from such notables as Richard E. Grant and Oscar nominee Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake).
At one point, a member of the lower class, disgusted by the youths' behavior, comments that the nation needs a war to thin out their ranks. Of course, World War II is right around the corner, and the film uses it to place a cap on the goings-on as a satire, to suggest a few of the characters may have finally come to grips with reality, even at great cost. But it's a little obvious, and a little hard to swallow (though the book ends much the same way, it fits better). Bright Young Things is full of characters that are fun to dislike, and even after we've watched them suffer, we have little reason to hope for their success.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: Bright Young Things is presented in a nice widescreen transfer that preserves the film's stylistic peculiarities. Scenes are often shot with saturated filters or concentrated color schemes (garish red, cool blue, white), and the effect carries over, though there is a heavy, grainy look to the overly processed scenes that may be a result of the digital grading work. Other than that, blacks are deep and shadow detail is good, and aside from a few examples of aliasing, the transfer is free of digital anomalies. I didn't see the film in the theater, where it was projected at 2.35:1 (according to the IMDb and various reviews); for whatever reason, it's in 1.78:1 on DVD, but I noticed no odd compositions to make me think a mistake has been made.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Fry's stylistic take on the material results in a much livelier audio mix than you'd expect to find on a period drama. The 5.1 mix uses all the channels frequently during party scenes, and the crowd atmosphere is really quite effective. The rear channels also come into play during a car race and a battle scene (the characters really get around). Otherwise, dialogue is always clearly anchored in the center channel and the score is well supported in the front mains.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Notebook, Birth
1 Feature/Episode commentary by writer/director Stephen Fry
Packaging: Keep Case
Extras Review: Bright Young Things includes some decent extras, and From the Bottom Up: The Making of Bright Young Things (30:07) is clearly the most unique. It's an on-set production diary that tracks the film's progress from pre-production to the final day of shooting, all from the perspective of a "runner," what seems to be the British version of a production assistant. Shane Davey drives to pick up stars, delivers costumes, and, all the while, lingers on the set to film behind-the-scenes footage and interviews. It's nice to see a "making of" piece totally free of self-promotion, film clips, and marketing fluff, even if the footage is a little dry at times.
The other piece, Stephen Fry: Director, more than makes up for the lack of mutual backslapping in the documentary. Over the course of nine-odd minutes, Fry is praised as nothing less than a deity walking the earth (if Jesus were alive today, he would totally want to hang with Stephen Fry, it would seem). Choice quotes: Fry is, "the kindest man to walk the earth," and the, "brightest fellow I know," and is such a gifted conversationalist one might say he has, "more words in his head than the Guinness Book of Records." I wonder how Fry is able to blackmail so many people at once. Kidding, sort of.
The Anointed One himself contributes a commentary track, and it's fairly slow, with lots of pauses and lots of describing what is going on in a particular scene amid discussions of getting the film off the ground and adapting the novel. The Guinness Book of Records isn't exactly the dictionary, after all. What do you people expect?
There is no trailer for the feature, but New Line has tacked on spots for The Notebook and Birth. The menus feature both aggravatingly long snippets of dialogue (which must play as you skip from screen to screen) or the amusing hymn that plays over the end credits ("Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, you're our guy!"), and it's very annoying, but the presentation is otherwise top notch.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsAwash in stylish excess, Bright Young Things is an entertaining, amusing, somewhat aimless satire that's ultimately as lacking in substance as the bored, affected youths it depicts. It's a lot of fun, though, and will likely connect with those taken in by the glamour and artifice of Moulin Rouge.
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