By Pete Vonder Haar | September 3, 2004

The new production of William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” is lovely to watch but impossible to endure. To its credit, the film boasts the year’s most beautiful costumes and cinematography.

Unfortunately, there is the problem of the actors who wear the costumes and cavort in front of the camera. Director Mira Nair obviously instructed her cast to overact as shamelessly as possibly, which explains why such reliables as Eileen Atkins, Gabriel Byrne, Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans and Jim Broadbent twitch, gape, eye-roll, double-take and mug their way through the film. Instead of a cinematic adaptation of Thackeray’s wicked satire of British class and caste snobbery, the film feels like a tongue-in-cheek parody that used to be the staple of the old “Carol Burnett Show.”

Carol Burnett is not here to play the social climbing Becky Sharp. That honor goes to Reese Witherspoon, whose performance is so thick with smirking and eyebrow arching that she seems to be paying homage to Brigitte Helm’s Evil Maria from the silent sci-fi “Metropolis.” Her attempts at an English accent vary from scene to scene and occasionally disappear entirely. She is even given a wildly anachronistic Bollywood-style musical number, for no obvious reason except to satisfy director Nair’s Indian ethnic pride. Witherspoon’s performance is so dumb that she turns Becky Sharp into Becky Stupid.

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