Stephen Fry introduces us to the young London bohemians of Bright Young Things, his adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel Vile Bodies, at a swirling soirée lit in scandalous red and scored with exotic drumbeat and horns. They're living it up, as usual, only this time, a proto-paparazzo has snuck into their midst. His shot winds up on the front page of a newspaper under the big bold headline, "Feeding Time at the Zoo for the Bright Young Things."
Where Waugh's sobriquet for these late-1930s revelers suggests their decadence, Fry's title captures something more blithely ironic. His movie is great fun delivered at high speed, with the rhythm and dialogue of classic Hollywood, but also with a canny modern eye reminiscent of the period films of the American director Alan Rudolph (like The Moderns, or Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle), or of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
The story revolves around Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore), who cannot marry his fiancée, Nina (Emily Mortimer), until he retrieves the manuscript of his novel, written under the pseudonym "Sue de Nimes," from the cranky moralizing British customs inspector who confiscates it upon his return to England. Adam also needs to get his hands on some serious cash, and eventually he happens upon a profitable (if short-lived) gig: making up the names of faux society people to write about for the insatiable tabloid press.
When the characters in Bright Young Things aren't looking out the windows of their limousines, scowling at the "little people" and wondering "what can they all do with their lives," they're dressing up in costumes for frenzied all-night bacchanals, sometimes at the home of the scandalized P.M., or just quietly having cocktails and cocaine as "themselves," if there is such a thing, as they gaily overindulge at a dangerous mid-century time of "angst, neurosis and panic" (to borrow the purple prose of the media).
We've seen this milieu in other films, but Fry -- an actor (he played Oscar in Wilde), writer and director -- mounts it engagingly. The genders and orientations (men in boas, a closeted race-car driver) mix freely, and the movie's frivolity and wit -- Fry ignores his jokes skillfully -- naturally turn serious when war intervenes and the characters need to be punished for their excesses.
Most of Fry's leading actors -- like batty Fenella Woolgar as the eccentric cokehead Agatha -- are familiar from other British films. In smaller roles he casts bigger names: Jim Broadbent as a tipsy major; Dan Aykroyd as a blustering Canadian who's become a London business mogul; Stockard Channing as Mrs. Melrose Ape, a globe-trotting evangelist with a band of a cappella angels; Peter O'Toole, deliciously droll and dotty, as Adam's intended father-in-law; and Simon Callow as the deposed king of Anatolia, who whines, in comically Russian-accented English, "Where is my gold fountain pen with eagles on him!!!" His kingdom for a quill, you might say.