THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
written and directed by Oliver Parker with Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O'Connor, Reese Witherspoon, and Judi Dench opens May 24 at Guild 45th
OSCAR WILDE, pithy king of the one-liners, makes for uncertain company on film. His showy, peerless epigrams, bombshells on stage, can't explode without a live connection to an audience. The Importance of Being Earnest is Oliver Parker's second attempt to wrest with that wit. His first, 1999's An Ideal Husband, was well cast and too reverent; this time he's cast well but gone wanton. You'll have fun with it, but it's not Wilde in the right way.
Ne'er-do-well Algernon (Rupert Everett) and dignified Jack (Colin Firth) are upper-class comrades in 1890s London whose thin veneers of high-toned propriety are disrupted when Jack, pursuing Algy's cousin Gwendolyn (clever Frances O'Connor), is forced to reveal his uncertain parentage to Algy's aunt, Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench, nicely withering). Further mess is made when Algy romantically upsets Jack's secret double life as a country gentleman raising a lovely young ward, Cecily (Reese Witherspoon, scrumptious and pouting prettily with a stiff upper lip). On paper, this sounds like the stuff of noisy screwball comedy, but the joke, of course, is that despite the chaos everybody insists on decorum.
Parker has a hit-or-miss time making that crouching, comic stillness cinematic. Though the score gets a little busy telling us what a grand lark it all is, the chipper playfulness and motifs like Algernon's narrow escapes from creditors can be breezy and engaging. But Parker often blows it, or, rather, overblows it—Algernon arrives on Jack's estate in a hot air balloon, and Gwendolyn's covert sexual yearnings are expressed by having her get a tattoo on her butt. Parker and editor Guy Bensley also keep neglecting opportunities, with moments that build toward visual payoffs that never happen: Jack's first social "interview" with Lady Bracknell is begun after he's received through a series of ornate doors, which are shut behind him by mechanical servants—but we're never given the satisfaction of that final, ominous slam.
Work from the cast, however, makes the iffy romp worth it. Firth is as loose as he's ever been on screen, which makes that rumpled manliness of his even more attractive. Meanwhile, Everett's own relaxed hauteur, a more extended riff on his devil-may-care pose from Husband, has the effortless snap for which the entire movie longs, suggesting that in some happy medium between this and Husband lies the Wilde film that Parker is still striving for.