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Old Brit things 

Classic irreverent English wit finds release and rerelease

Stephen Fry's directorial debut is a cheerfully decadent and anarchic farce called Bright Young Things, and well it should be so titled. Its principal actors are mostly unknown, which means that Fry--a devoted, dandyish lord of British theater and letters--cast them for the best possible reason: They are exceptionally talented. Bright young things, indeed. The movie is the sort in which outlandish supporting characters routinely upstage the straight leads--frustrated lovers Adam and Nina--who are gamely played by newcomer Stephen Campbell Moore and the relatively famous Emily Mortimer. Chief among the little-known talents enacting the impoverished literary bon vivants that litter Bright Young Things is the delightfully named actress Fenella Woolgar, a 30ish woman with an anvil profile. As the adventurous but doomed gal pal Agatha, Woolgar stumbles through the film's pre-WWII English setting under the influence of a variety of substances, always with a giddy, zonked grin on her face as she awaits the story's next preposterous turn. Also stealing scenes are David Tennant as Ginger Littlejohn, a bafflingly clueless but sneaky layabout, and James McAvoy as Simon Balcairn, a high-strung, well-bred and overeducated young society columnist. Then there's Michael Sheen's swishy cokehead, the life of the party until the era's proscriptions against homosexuality catch up with him.

Bright Young Things is an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel Vile Bodies, a viciously paced, gag-a-minute tale of the young and the useless party monsters of Mayfair between the two great wars. Both book and film proceed so breathlessly and absurdly that you scarcely have time to ask, "Just what is the point of this?"

But surely, the comic inanity must be the point. The story opens with Adam, a young novelist, attempting to clear customs at Dover, from whence he plans to rendezvous with Nina, his bride-to-be. Trouble begins early as an ignorant customs officer seizes Adam's manuscript (entitled Bright Young Things), saying that literature needs to be kept out of England. The confiscated manuscript is Adam's only copy; in short order, he's in hot water with his publisher (Dan Aykroyd, overplaying a vulgar American interloper as if he's in a Coen film) and Nina, who now refuses to marry Adam in his reduced financial circumstances.

Then, it's off to the races as Adam finds and loses money for his marriage and chases one night of merriment after another with his drunk, coked-up pals. In addition to the sterling work by the main cast, Bright Young Things trots out excellent cameos by older warhorses such as Peter O'Toole as Nina's dotty father, Stockard Channing as an all-too-recognizable American evangelist (named Mrs. Ape!) and, best of all, Jim Broadbent as a soused old soldier who absconds with Adam's gambling winnings and keeps reappearing, only to vanish once more.

Although it's not clear why this particular novel needs to be revived at this moment in history, one can imagine that the irrepressible and irreverent Fry holds this Waugh chestnut close to his Brit-wit heart. Fry, who is perhaps best known to American audiences as the narrator of the Harry Potter films, has been a mainstay of British stage, television and film for two decades. He was on Blackadder in the '80s and later starred in Jeeves and Wooster, but more recently and significantly, received hosannas for his turn as Oscar Wilde in the 1997 film Wilde.

Waugh's Vile Bodies was and is representative of a genre: young, overeducated and privileged youth, full of aspiration and ambition, looking to make their way in a corrupted society. Waugh's novel followed by four years Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, his tale of war-wasted expats drinking themselves away and partaking of boxing and bullfighting, ancient and violent rituals of a culture that had nearly destroyed them a few years before. But Waugh's characters accept the corruption of their society; his youngsters have few illusions about the compromises necessary to make their way. And Fry's film heartily endorses that cool appraisal (with none of the moralizing anguish that Fellini brought to similar material in La Dolce Vita).

To be sure, Fry finds it necessary to advance his story a decade hence from Waugh's setting, so that the characters can be confronted by World War II (and consequently give modern audiences a firmer historical context). But even here he treads lightly, giving us one Pythonesque battle scene during which Adam--now a soldier--finds Broadbent's drunken major, who is still clueless after all those drinks, and who still has Adam's money.

In a felicitous bit of counter-programming, Monty Python's Life of Brian was re-released earlier this year in larger markets to coincide with the revivalist juggernaut known as The Passion of the Christ. Gibson's opus has since gone on to DVD rental heaven, but it's still 2004, a year to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1979 release of Monty Python's inspired alternative history of Palestine two thousand years ago.

Seen in the context of Passion, Python's satire seems richer and more inspired than ever. For those new to this version of the Greatest Story Ever Told, we follow the parallel life of an ordinary Palestinian named Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) as he stumbles through the tumultuous events of Roman-occupied Judea. Brian is perfectly average, a Forrest Gump of antiquity whose unvirginal mother (Terry Jones in something approximating drag) is a shrew who seems to support herself kneeling before Roman centurions. The real Jesus is spotted a couple of times, reverently, but Brian is an anonymous face in the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount, eventually brawling with onlookers who can't quite hear the beatitudes ("The Greek shall inherit the earth?" "Who's the Greek?").

Aside from all the other complaints about Mel Gibson's vengeful, sadomasochistic and authoritarian Passion, what was missing from that film was a populist spirit, a sense of the eternal ordinariness of people with their perpetual miseries, complaints, foolishness and good humor in the face of life's frequent sucker punches. Nowhere is this more powerfully dramatized than in the Monty Python film's final and most famous scene, that of the mistaken crucifixion of Brian. When the condemned men sing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," Python's humble parody becomes something that The Passion is not: transcendent.

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