Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies happens to be my favorite from his ouevre, so I was prepared to dislike Stephen Frye's film adaptation, Bright Young Things. I eyed it on the shelves of our small-town video store. The owner had clearly made an unusual gamble, but that didn't mean I had to. Ebert, or Roeper, gave it a thumbs-up, but not both, which can be a troubling sign for the video consumer. I dithered, then passed over it for Garden State, or Vera Drake.
My friend Scott finally tipped the scales for me, recommending it and calling it "pretty". My wife and I watched it last night, and since neither of us fell asleep, I can confidently give this DVD our "two thumbs-up". It is very pretty, and Frye is resolved to stay true to the book - to a point. Anyone brave (or foolish) enough to wrestle Waugh to the silver screen quickly encounters a terrible difficulty: the most compelling character in any of Waugh's novels is Waugh's authorial voice. The principals in VB are lamentably named, and demonstrate either an affable cluelessness, or a determined cruelty, or some combination of the two. They are duly manipulated by an omniscient narrator whose loathing for his characters isn't quite on par with his loathing for himself. "Vile bodies" is a sentiment never voiced in the book; it occurs in parentheses, presumably in Adam Symes' weary, hungover brain. But after witnessing one seemingly inconsequential suicide, and determining the set course toward an obvious "dramatic" demise, the reader can be forgiven for presuming the sentiment belongs to the author.
It is a rare director that can persuade his actors to invest in a dyspeptic comedy. It's even rarer for such a film to turn a profit. Frye isn't stupid, so it is interesting, then, to watch him roll up his sleeves during the film's last 20 minutes, and make the effort to turn in a happy ending. It sort of works, if you aren't married to the book. And if you are, you'll still enjoy the delirious and destructive machinery of indulgence you know, in your heart of hearts, will inevitably lead to Adam Symes' complete impoverishment.