Despite the omnipresent media whoring of its maker, “Kill Bill: Volume Two” took back seat this past weekend in Philadelphia, as the city’s 13th Annual Film Festival kicked into high gear. It has become an annual tradition of sorts for myself and a friend to take in at least one double feature at the fest, with our preference being the perversely exciting films of the Danger After Dark series. This year, however, we took a break from our usual dose of ultra-violent Asian bloodbaths and tripped-out Spanish nightmares. You see, this year, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” was playing. And what was the “greatest film in the English language”, as hailed by DAD program director Travis Crawford, to be paired up with? Why, it was actor-turned-director Stephen Fry’s “Bright Young Things”, a satire set in late 1930s London. Huh? Okay, so the two back-to-back films weren’t exactly billed as a “double feature” per se, but still, they seemed an odd match. Yet strangely enough, showing the two films together actually made some sense in a way. Both chronicle the heady highs and wretched lows of a life of too much sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, or big band as the case may be. And both are simply busting at the seams with debauched, anarchic energy. “Dolls” is clearly the keeper here, though “BYT” is still as fun, giddy, and intoxicating as the endless soirees in which it revels.
“BYT” is a slight (as in a decade) update of Evelyn Waugh’s venomous high society satire “Vile Bodies”. As written and directed by Fry, the filmed version of this sordid tale is apparently much kinder to its vapid partymongers than their creator was. For the most part these flamboyant libertines still get “theirs” in the end, but only after they’re allowed their ample fun, as are we. And what fun it is! There’s outrageous Inferno Parties and dazzling Dress Up Parties and saucy Dress To Get Screwed Parties (or was that “Rules of Attraction”?) and rivers of booze and miles of “naughty salt” and… never a lag in the action, at least not for a while. Traipsing in the thick of it all is nice-guy, would-be-novelist Adam Symes (newcomer Stephen Campbell Moore). Upon arriving from France, Adam’s first novel, a “shocking” expose of London’s Bright Young Things, is confiscated by customs officials as “filth”. This puts a major dent in Adam’s plans since he was counting on the generous payment promised by newspaper magnate Lord Monomark (Dan Akroyd) to allow him to wed his beloved Nina (the foxy Emily Mortimer). Now broke and still in love, Adam is forced to take all roads, low or high, that may lead to some benjamins in his pocket. Be it tracking down an elusive old drunkard (a brilliant Jim Broadbent) who may or may not have won Adam a slight fortune at the races, pleading to Nina’s loopy father (Peter O’Toole), or taking over the recently vacated scandal column for Monomark’s paper, Adam swings with the best of them. The whole charade is a great big, innocent gas until the dreaded Third Act strikes, and suddenly it’s not so fun anymore. Enter madness, suicide, debt, the Law, and finally WWII.
The film is a breezy and likable enough entertainment, especially for those of us unfamiliar with Waugh’s original. In his directing debut, Fry does a sound job of recreating the delirious atmosphere of the era. He even convincingly pulls the rug out from under us in the end, despite an unnecessary, overly sentimental denouement. Another rookie, Stephen Campbell Moore (a dead ringer for a young Mark Hamill) makes an impressive leap into films here as well. His role is tricky too, in that he’s the heart of the story and at the same time a pawn like any other. “BYT” is all about excess, and so it is befitting that the film’s greatest joys lie in the bounteous parade of comic talent on display. Besides the hilarious (glorified) cameos of Broadbent, O’Toole, Akroyd, and even Stockard Channing, the film features sparkling turns by Fenella Woolgar as the daft Agatha, Michael Sheen as the campy Miles, and David Tennant as the pompous Ginger Littlejohn. Each of these players shamelessly steals nearly every scene they’re in. Yet even with all this talent, “BYT” is nearly as vacuous as its doomed party brats. Where “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” knew exactly what it was and never looked back, “BYT” seems somewhat afraid of being confiscated as empty “filth.”