`Earnest' can't keep Wilde's wit about it


May 31, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Any good production of Oscar Wilde's 1895 masterpiece,The Importance of Being Earnest, exemplifies the joys of play-acting. The comedy's hero, Jack, makes up a rapscallion brother called Ernest to escape his country obligations and lark about the city - where, as Ernest, he wins the devotion of fair Gwendolen. In the country, Jack's best friend Algernon poses as Ernest in order to woo Jack's ward, Cecily, who has fallen in love with "Ernest" from afar. When London-based Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell (Algernon's cousin and aunt) also arrive at Jack's rural estate, the ensuing complications are enough to turn sitcom-writers cross-eyed.

Wilde doesn't rely on his booby-trapped plot to detonate laughs. His dialogue skims across two convoluted courtships like a fabulous, farcical hovercraft. Witticisms waft from the characters' mouths as if in comic-strip balloons. When the underlying silliness - including a major role for a woman's capacious handbag - pricks the floating wordplay, it releases an ether of hilarity.

Unfortunately, writer-director Oliver Parker has attempted to "open the play up" - and in so doing lets that ether escape. He adds shots of bill-collectors chasing Algernon through London. He invents a flashback to Lady Bracknell's suddenly racy past (who knew?). He inserts fantasy tableaux depicting Cecily's romantic daydreams and, even more disastrously, those of her tutor, Miss Prism, and the Rev. Canon Chasuble.

Wilde said the play was written "by a butterfly, for butterflies," but Parker's production pins the characters down like butterflies on a specimen board and wreaks havoc on Wilde's own airy rhythms. Anything that doesn't take place in the play's morning room and drawing room and garden turns out to be destructively superfluous. The only good that could come of this film would be hooking the Moulin Rouge crowds with music-hall gaudiness and extravagance - and then getting them to read the play.

Colin Firth (Jack) has said that this company wanted to avoid the stiltedness of conventional Wilde ensembles, who are too geared up to be entertaining. Actually, when performing Wilde, an aura of merriment can be pleasing; since Wilde works with dazzling feints and combinations rather than mere punchlines, the actors' pride in their own deftness can help create an atmosphere of wit.

That's what happens in Anthony Asquith's 1952 film, which featured Michael Redgrave as Jack, and, even more wonderfully, Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism and Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell. Asquith begins his film with a curtain going up in a theater and ends with it going down; far from being simply stagy, Asquith's picture luxuriates in its staginess - before the first act is through, you do too. (It's available on both VHS tape and DVD.)

Parker's version is one letdown after another, at least until the surefire climax. He doesn't trust the language to create its own giddy environment, so he uses self-consciously breezy music and jazzes up the tunes Algernon and Jack sing or hum. Wilde's stage direction of Jack and Algernon whistling "some dreadful popular air from a British opera" becomes a pop duet to their lovers.

Rupert Everett, as Algernon, has the polish of a professional farceur - no more, no less - while Firth makes Jack a naturalistic straight man: apparently, it's all that Firth could see in the role. Judi Dench takes a disappointingly modest and deadpan approach to Lady Bracknell, but at least she knows how to get her laughs that way. Frances O'Connor flounders as a self-consciously naughty Gwendolen; in what should be two great scenes, she undercuts Reese Witherspoon's strong attack as Cecily.

What can you say about a production stolen by Anna Massey's Miss Prism and Tom Wilkinson's Reverend? These actors have a firm playful grasp and a palpable affection for their characters' befuddled dignity and attraction. They understand what Wilde meant by the importance of being earnest.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O' Connor, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench

Directed by Oliver Parker

Released by Miramax

Rated PG

Running time 97 minutes

Sun Score: **

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