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Years ago I read a satirical piece by Fran Lebowitz in which she formulated the ultimate put-down for a young man whose intelligence, or lack of same, had inspired her displeasure. He was, she said, the sort of person whose lips moved while he watched television. It's a wicked slight, but I confess to thinking that Oliver Parker might have had that very fellow in mind when he butchered Oscar Wilde's brilliant play to make this awful film.
And it's really too bad, because the portents for the production were - on the surface at least - very good. You start with a great play by a great writer, who was also a great humorist. It's probable that only Shakespeare penned more quotable lines than Oscar Wilde did. And even Shakespeare probably did not write so many that were funny. The cast choices also looked good: Colin Firth and Rupert Everett as the male leads, the two false "Ernests"; the formidable Judi Dench as the even more formidable Lady Bracknell; Frances O'Connor as Gwendolen Fairfax; and Reese Witherspoon as Cecily Cardew - Witherspoon doing a creditable "Gwyneth Paltrow" turn with an English accent.
A bankable American star appears to be a standard requirement these days when presenting an essentially British production to viewers on this side of the Pond. Otherwise, so the illogic apparently goes, few people "over here" would turn up to see it. Of course, James Ivory did very well a decade ago with superb films like "Howard's End", and with nary an American star in sight. One supposes that Parker can be forgiven for overlooking that fact: after all, he was preoccupied with revving up the editorial chainsaw to dismember Wilde's text.
The problem with Parker's approach to the play is that Wilde wrote specifically for the theatre. Language was his tool, and few writers have used language half so brilliantly. "The Importance Of Being Earnest" is a drawing-room comedy, one of the best in the repertoire, a very funny, extremely literate play about manners, attitudes and conventions in Victorian England. It's a clever and tightly integrated work, a small masterpiece, where dialogue begets more dialogue, wry observations and witticisms proliferate, all of them ultimately spun into a seamless satirical whole.
That's not to say that Wilde can't be made into a "motion" picture. Three years ago, Parker did a creditable, if slightly sappy job on "An Ideal Husband". Perhaps buoyed by that modest success, he felt he could take Wilde - through "The Importance Of Being Earnest" - to a new level. And he has. Unfortunately, the place he has taken it is so far below theatrical sea-level that oxygen is required for basic survival. In hacking the text to ribbons - it seems that almost half of the dialogue has been discarded - he has so compromised the context of the piece that the end result is almost incomprehensible. Think of it as the ultimate dumbing-down of Oscar Wilde.
A short list of items in the film that are astonishingly un-funny. Gwendolen Fairfax having "Ernest" tattooed on her ass in a disreputable London district. Algernon Moncrieff arriving at Jack Worthing's country estate in a hot-air balloon. Algernon leaping in and out of carriages, and climbing through windows, and scurrying down alleyways to avoid his herds of creditors. Algernon spitting food all over himself when he meets Jack at the country house. Algernon and Jack in a wrestling match over a plate of muffins. Jack having Gwendolen's name tattooed on his ass as the credits roll by at the end of the film.
Urgent memo to Oliver Parker: Oscar Wilde is not about slapstick.
It was suggested in an earlier comment on IMDB that if you've never seen the play, as written, you might find Parker's film amusing; but if you have seen the play, you probably won't. That's good advice. Happily, the original 1952 film is available on VHS, and will soon be available on DVD. It was directed by Anthony Asquith. Wisely, Asquith kept his film solidly within the theatre's embrace, even starting the piece with a curtain rising before an invisible audience. And he had an English cast that was to die for - Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison, Joan Geeenwood, Dorothy Tutin, Margaret Rutherford, Miles Malleson. Asquith produced a brilliant film, a triumph of intelligence, style and taste, everything that Wilde and his admirers could have wished it to be - and everything that Parker's film is not.
A final note. Shortly after the film was released, Colin Firth gave an interview that was published in The Globe & Mail, a major Canadian newspaper out of Toronto. In the interview, Firth lamented that he lived in a society - England - that pretended to be literate, but in fact was not. The irony implicit in his comment is almost too delicious. I'm certain that Oscar Wilde would have loved it.
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