British actor Stephen Fry delivers a raucous directing debut with “Bright Young Things,” a satiric dynamo whose radiant cast clearly is having so much fun that their vigor compensates for the characters’ lack of emotional depth.
With a screenplay written by Fry from Evelyn Waugh’s 1930s novel “Vile Bodies,” the film feels fairly contemporary in its examination of gossip-mongering and celebrity culture.
Set in the last gasp of hedonism before World War II, the film’s party-today-for-tomorrow-we-die sensibility also has relevance for modern audiences living under a cloud of terrorism.
The movie is infectious on so many levels, its jazzy score, the lavish costumes, the giddy pace propelled by Waugh’s joyously absurd exchanges, effectively transferred by Fry to the screen.
Fry’s biggest accomplishment is assembling such a bonny cast of known faces and relative screen newcomers, led by Emily Mortimer, Stephen Campbell Moore, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Broadbent, Michael Sheen, the scene-stealing Fenella Woolgar and Peter O’Toole in a wonderfully dotty cameo.
A few players in the huge ensemble are underused, notably Stockard Channing as a morality proselytizer and Richard E. Grant as a snooty Anglican priest. But like their cast mates, they make the most of what screen time they have.
The tale follows the lewd and lusty debauchery of Britain’s party set, the “bright young things” whose excesses are minutely chronicled by the gossip hounds of the press.
At the center of the dance floor are Adam Symes (Moore), a penniless writer on a perpetual quest to find the cash so he can marry sweetheart Nina Blount (Mortimer).
Their romantic pitfalls play out against an endless champagne swirl of carousals, their inner circle including outrageous party-girl Agatha Runcible (Woolgar) and party-boy Miles (Michael Sheen).
Aykroyd, increasingly interesting as a character actor, blusters along as Lord Monomark, a scandal-sheet publisher who wants his readers to know every move of the nation’s social gluttons. The ever versatile Broadbent has hilarious moments as an elusive drunken major who holds the key to Adam and Nina’s financial security.
Rounding out the principal cast are David Tennant as a rival for Nina’s affections and James McAvoy as floundering gossip columnist.
Mortimer — who has a terrific little moving coming this fall, “Dear Frankie” — delivers the film’s most authentically expressive performance, infusing Nina with fragile sadness even as she dances till dawn.
In her spirited film debut, stage actress Woolgar is an utter delight, dominating scene after scene with a blissfully, thoughtlessly carefree comic sense.
Whether from sheer character overload or some underlying datedness in Waugh’s story, the other players come off rather superficially, all surface glitter but little dramatic weight. When bad things happen to them, it’s hard to sympathize.
Which perhaps is Waugh’s point: When the bright young things, trivialized to death in the press, turn to vile bodies, why should anyone care?