Satire with a vengeance

'Bright Young Things' lampoons the early 1930s

When it comes to marketing, the movie business takes no chances. So what if Evelyn Waugh is regarded by just about everybody as one of the past century's greatest English writers? And so what if he purposefully chose "Vile Bodies" as the title of his grimly hilarious 1930 novel about decadence and dissolution in the jazz age?

That title could make moviegoers think the film adaptation is a horror flick. And it would look terrible on a multiplex marquee.

The solution? Substitute a title that connotes exactly the opposite. "Bright Young Things" has the glamorous, inviting ring our youth-obsessed culture craves.

I find this a dumb decision. "Vile Bodies" is a superbly sardonic title for a novel that lampoons the interwar era of the early 1930s, showing how fundamentally smart people stave off any temptation to make their world a better place by cramming into as many parties, saloons, and other merry-making places as possible.

In other respects, "Bright Young Things" is an enjoyable movie that marks a rattling good directorial debut for Stephen Fry, the English actor who's best known for starring in "Wilde" seven years ago.

Indeed, the film is more effective than Waugh's novel in some ways. It spends less time on hyperactive social satire in the early scenes, and it focuses more single-mindedly on the main story line, about a newspaper gossip column that simultaneously sums up and subverts the social values of its age.

And watta cast, as they used to say in movie ads. Even when their roles are small (as many are) it's a pleasure to see such talents as Stockard Channing, Jim Broadbent, Peter O'Toole, Richard E. Grant, and Mr. Fry himself.

Also worth singling out is Fenella Woolgar, a rising young actress with offbeat looks and seemingly unlimited talent. She'll also appear in "Vera Drake" and "Stage Beauty" this fall.

So overlook the title change - and the happy ending the filmmakers have unsteadily tacked on - and give "Bright Young Things" a try. It's the most acerbic history lesson you'll have this season.

Rated R; contains drug use.

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