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'Importance of Being Earnest'

'Importance of Being Earnest' a lot of talk about nothing

Friday, May 31, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Quizzing a suitor for her daughter's hand, Lady Bracknell -- the fearsome old dragon of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" -- asks the address of his townhouse. She finds it to be on the unfashionable side of the street. But that can be easily altered, she declares.

 
 
'The Importance Of Being Earnest'

RATING: PG, for mild sensuality.

STARRING: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench.

DIRECTOR: Oliver Parker.

WEB SITE: www.importanceof
beingearnest

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

"Do you mean the fashion, or the side?" the gentleman asks.

"Both, if necessary, I presume," Lady Bracknell replies.

Why, she could run a movie studio with that attitude. Period pieces tend to be relegated to the unfashionable side these days, what with the target audience consisting of anyone who doesn't remember life before MTV.

But it can be easily altered. Look what Baz Luhrmann did with "Moulin Rouge!" Why can't those turn-of-the-century French dance-hall performers sing tunes by Elton John and Paul McCartney and Nirvana? Luhrmann's frenzied passion for all that passionate frenzy somehow made it work.

Director-screenwriter Oliver Parker's cinematic updating of "The Importance of Being Earnest," now at Loews Waterfront,is another matter. It's a show about nothing, but with wittier dialogue and more trenchant social commentary than "Seinfeld" could ever have imagined.

So what does Parker do but emphasize the nothing, by making the characters even more silly and trivial than Wilde had? They may have been little more than conduits for the playwright's hilariously barbed observations about human nature and Victorian convention, but at least they had their dignity.

In Parker's version, Gwendolyn Fairfax (a saucy Frances O'Connor) immortalizes her love for her man by tattooing his name on her bare behind. Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett, who was born to be arch) descends upon the country estate of his friend Jack Worthing (Colin Firth, stolid as any straight man) in a hot-air balloon. Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench, who may have too much of a twinkle in her eye) reveals a shocking insight into her past that might not have made Wilde blush (as if anything could) but might offend the sensibilities of anyone familiar with the play.

If anything, the movie seems too modern. It still takes place in the past, but one in which Queen Vic is dead -- long live King Ed. Gwendolyn arrives at Jack's estate by automobile, wearing goggles and scarf. Algy plays ragtime on the piano.

Fortunately, most of Wilde's delicious dialogue remains. For example: "If the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?" Or "More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read." Or "I hope you will always look at me just like that, especially when there are other people present." Or "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

Lines like that, and the wit behind them, bear the sting of truth but also the balm of humor. So does the vacuousness behind the motivations of Gwendolyn and the other pretty young thing in the play, Cicely Cardew (Reese Witherspoon, never to be underestimated even with a British accent).

She's Jack Worthing's ward, and she falls for Algy, thinking him to be Jack's ne'er-do-well younger brother Ernest. Gwendolyn loves Jack, thinking his name is Ernest, mainly because that's what he calls himself when he's in town.

Both women are in love with the notion of loving a man named Ernest. They couldn't love a Jack or an Algy. We remain just as obsessed today with the importance of being shallow -- loving someone for his looks, his money, his car.

No, Wilde never goes out of style. So he should be able to survive in any era. But only with style. That seems to be the main thing lacking from Parker's adaptation.

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