The Importance of Being Earnest
Rated PG, 97 min. Directed by Oliver Parker. Starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Frances O'Connor, Judi Dench, Anne Massey, Tom Wilkinson.
It isn't so much an issue of purism: Filmmakers have often reimagined classic texts for the silver screen, sometimes to great success. And Oliver Parker's new version of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest doesn't even deviate so much from Wilde's template; in fact, Parker has gone back to the author's earliest drafts and reincorporated material later cut from the final version. Yet, in small, but needling ways, Parker has attempted to “contemporize” the play, and there's just no need. Wilde's words, seemingly so ephemeral, so tossed off, have remained wholly relevant a century later. So why stray from source material already so sublime? The premise stands the same: Confined to his country estate to raise his 17-year-old charge Cecily (Witherspoon), Jack Worthing (Firth) invents a dilettante, London-dwelling brother named Ernest so that Jack may escape regularly to the pleasures of city life. His charming, flip companion Alvy Moncrieff (Everett) has an imaginary friend of his own named Bunbury, a supposed invalid that Alvy invokes in order to skip out on distasteful social engagements with his dour aunt, Lady Bracknell (Dench). Alvy, aware of Jack's double life and keen to meet the fetching young Cecily, shows up at Jack's estate posing as long-lost Brother Ernest -- a lie Jack can't exactly deny, considering he was its originator. To add to the mayhem, Alvy's cousin and Jack's betrothed, Gwendolen (O'Connor), arrives in the country, looking for her fiancé Ernest -- er, Jack -- just as Cecily accepts the marriage proposal of Ernest -- er, Alvy. Parker has a truly bang-up cast at his disposal, including Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson as a reverend with eyes for more than just God. Most delightfully, Firth gets to shake loose the shackles of all those stodgy, sullen roles he usually plays (Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones's Diary) and, when reduced to a great, desperate puddle of puppy love, he matches Everett's more tested comic capabilities barb for barb. Only Witherspoon, the sole expat in the British cast and usually quite funny, falters; Cecily is an intriguing cipher -- schoolgirl-silly yet wise beyond her years -- and Witherspoon never quite cracks Cecily's admittedly tough code. Still, for all the talent, Parker's adaptation is lacking. (He did a much better job translating Wilde's An Ideal Husband to the screen three years ago.) Earnest labors to achieve a jaunty whimsy, but labors so much, and so obviously, that the result is a galloping, gasping frenzy. Only rarely does Parker let the actors or the audience sit back and bask in Wilde's inimitable wit, too busy is he in “liberating” the play from its drawing-room trappings and in injecting ill-fitting fantasy sequences and a tedious sight gag involving tattoos. Wilde described his play as a “delicate bubble of fancy.” In all his misguided enthusiasm, Parker has mustered enough bluster to fill up a zeppelin, blowing harder and harder, for something more and more fanciful. But with so much hot air, the bubble is bound to burst, and so it does in Parker's blundering adaptation.
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