Box office turkeys

by CHRISTOPHER TOOKEY, Daily Mail

Stephen Fry is intelligent and talented, so it's a mystery why he didn't spot the problems with turning Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies into a feature film.

The leading man - Adam Fenwick-Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore) - is a gullible nincompoop, and the love of his life, Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer), a flighty, feckless gold-digger, so it's hard to feel much for them.

Fry, unfortunately, thinks they're rather sweet, romantic and innocent, so we ought to care for them, no really we should.

He's turned Waugh's abrasive satire into a cosy romantic comedy with a happy ending that Waugh chose not to write, and about which a modern audience won't give two hoots. Fry has also failed to spot that Waugh's book, set in the Roaring Twenties, shows the first stirrings of the deep, selflacerating guilt that was to threaten the author's sanity, and turn him into a hard-line Roman Catholic. It is a book about trivial people, but not a trivial book.

It is also highly specific to its period, steeped in that post-World War I feeling that life is for living, and the darker sides are simply too horrible to be thought about.

Fry ill-advisedly, and half-heartedly, brings the action forward to the Thirties. Trivialising a masterpiece might not matter so much, if only this were as funny as the original. But Fry has taken an illustrious comic cast and wasted them. It is surely some kind of inverse directorial achievement to take actors of the calibre of Stockard Channing, Jim Broadbent, Peter O'Toole, Jim Carter, Julia McKenzie, Simon Callow and Dan Aykroyd and fail to wring a single laugh out of them.

The only actors to emerge with any credit are some of the younger set. Fenella Woolgar, especially, has a sympathetic, Joyce Grenfellow-well-met quality as the Hon. Agatha Runcible - the one who ends up in a mental institution thinking she's a racing driver. For the most part, the comedy is directed with a heavy hand and a cloddish disregard for nuance - some actors are allowed to go way over the top, others remain obstinately grounded in naturalism. Stylistically, it's a mess.

Fry's objective, presumably, was to draw a parallel between these characters and the celebs and 'It' girls of our own day, but he never goes deep enough psychologically, morally or socially to draw any meaningful conclusions. The director clearly identifies with his bright young things. Perhaps he sees in them the reckless irresponsibility in his own youth that landed him on the wrong side of the law, or the unreliability in his early middle age that made him desert a West End play in midrun and decamp to Belgium. Whatever the explanation, he seems indisposed to follow Waugh's detached example and expose the immorality of his heroes and heroines. Instead, he prefers to moralise about those who moralise. His one idea seems to be to blame the Press, in the form of Lord Monomark (Aykroyd), a character based on Lord Beaverbrook. This might have been interesting if only Fry had been able to make the charge stick, or make us believe that his allegedly bright young things really are bright, or hard done by. But mostly, you wonder why they don't do something useful with their lives instead of taking refuge in hedonism, silly games and trivia.

Fry moves his camera confidently early on, and gives the opening scenes a Moulin Rouge!-style flashiness; but he can't keep it up, and the piece relaxes into boring orthodoxy. Shown on telly on a Sunday night, this would qualify as a mild disappointment with a few entertaining moments. As a feature film, it's just too, too shame-making.

Down with Love is worse. Ewan McGregor is hideously embarrassing as a playboy journalist in the Sixties, trying to tame a proto-feminist writer (Renee Zellweger) into falling for his dubious charms.

Shot like the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie from Hell, and acted with an archness that kills every laugh stone dead, the film makes Zellweger look plain and puffy. McGregor comes across as a talentless amateur.

Ugly, unfunny and utterly devoid of charm, it flopped in the States, and no wonder: it's painful to watch.

A smirky turkey.

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