Justify Your Existence

Subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People," The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde's airiest confection, a bite-sized meringue delectable with melt-in-your-mouth epigrams. Though its tart center tastes of class resentment and the exhaustion of necessary dissimulation, the play draws the sweetest of conclusions—namely, that self-invention is a natural phenomenon, and worthy of celebration. Winkingly focused on a pair of bachelor dandies juggling double identities, Wilde's drawing-room farce was also something of a cryptogram, and it happened to debut on the London stage the same year the writer's own design for living was so cruelly condemned. Earnest triumphantly opened in February 1895 and sheepishly closed in May, during Wilde's trials for "gross indecency"; weeks later, he entered Reading Gaol, and never wrote another work for the stage.

For Oliver Parker, the importance of adapting Earnest lies in the text—not the context, and certainly not the subtext. Much like his previous Oscar screener, An Ideal Husband, Parker's rendition—the first production to be released under the Ealing Studios banner in 57 years—is a proficient skim of the Man With the Green Carnation's wit and wisdom, piped by an able crew of quick-tongued ventriloquists. (The hits don't quit: "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune . . . to lose both seems like carelessness." "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing." "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. . . . No man does. That is his.") Jack (Colin Firth) maintains separate personae in town and country, as does his friend Algy (Rupert Everett), a form of social compartmentalizing that the latter curiously dubs "Bunburying." (The Bunburyist's predilections are left unspecified in the play; the film pegs them as cigarettes and cancan dancers.) In the guise of his alter ego, "Ernest," Jack is smitten with Algy's horny cousin, Gwendolen (Frances O'Connor), while Algy, appropriating the Ernest mantle for himself, falls for his buddy's bright-eyed ward, Cecily (Reese Witherspoon). The women become rivals, then allies when they discover their mutual entanglement with lovers that dare not speak their names.

Parker pads Earnest's avowedly slight figure with fantasy sequences, flashbacks, chase scenes, even an ill-fated trip to the tattoo parlor, and the stuffing shows. Indeed, for a handsomely financed Miramax production, the movie is ribboned with crooked seams: muddy sound, glaring continuity errors, a mischievous boom mic, Everett's suddenly AWOL mustache. Though Parker ranges far from the the play's series of confined spaces, there's no visual wit or blocking savvy—surely no one was minding the bakery when a comically foolproof contretemps between Jack and nervous eater Algy entailing 12 invocations of the word "muffins" was allowed to collapse on the screen like a traumatized cake.

Muffin doin': Everett and Firth in The Importance of Being Earnest
photo: Miramax
Muffin doin': Everett and Firth in The Importance of Being Earnest

Details

The Importance of Being Earnest
Written and directed by Oliver Parker, from the play by Oscar Wilde
Miramax

13 Conversations About One Thing
Directed by Jill Sprecher
Written by Sprecher and Karen Sprecher
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens May 24

Bartleby
Directed by Jonathan Parker
Written by Parker and Catherine di Napoli, from the novella by Herman Melville
Outrider
Opens May 24

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Tonally, however, Earnest boasts perfect pitch, thanks mainly to the blithe, nimble actors. Everett and Firth's ruefully affectionate, roughhousing chemistry feels decades lived-in (actually, they co-starred as fellow Marxist misfits in Another Country nearly 20 years ago), Witherspoon's matter-of-fact daftness keeps daydreamy Cecily tethered to earth, and you will know Judi Dench by the trail of dead (as imperious Lady Bracknell, the mother of all mothers). Parker's Earnest certainly doesn't get in Wilde's way, but neither does it justify its own existence—what's the point of a mere face-value appropriation? Shakespeare gets a cine-update every other week, so isn't Oscar Wilde ready for his 21st-century close-up?


Toward The Importance of Being Earnest's finale, Jack turns supplicant: "Lady Bracknell, I hate to seem inquisitive, but would you kindly inform me who I am?" Existential quandaries also plague the multi-thread 13 Conversations About One Thing, a jigsaw rumination on the pursuit of happiness as attempted by a white-collar misanthrope (Alan Arkin), a hotshit lawyer (Matthew McConaughey), a beatific custodian (Clea DuVall), and a self-pitying math professor (John Turturro), the last of whom announces the film's fixation on points of no return when he scrawls "IRREVERSIBLE" on a chalkboard.

Jill Sprecher's second feature communicates its block-capital ideas via whispery, receding performances, a match more dissonant than complementary. Written by Sprecher with her sister Karen, the screenplay tries to digest Kant, Sartre, and Bertrand Russell, but seems preemptively fatigued by its appointment with Destiny. The bewildered characters play temporal hopscotch through underpopulated midtown avenues and scrubbed, deserted West Village side streets—seemingly grafted from Eyes Wide Shut outtakes or a Residents in Distress wet dream. Aspiring to evoke an unreal city stranded in the autumn of the soul, the film succeeds only when it peers up from the intro-philosophy book for the occasional glimpse of everyday beauty—most memorably, a sudden evening wind snatching a newly dry-cleaned shirt from a girl's hand. 13 Conversations leaps back and forth in time to answer its endless what-if's and why-me's, but the season is forever fall.


Maybe Melville country should be zoned for the French. After Claire Denis's hallucinatory tone-poem translation of Billy Budd (Beau Travail) and Leos Carax's marvelous train-wreck salute to Pierre, or the Ambiguities (Pola X), inscrutable Bartleby the Scrivener suffers further torment when his ghost is exhumed for Jonathan Parker's embarrassing present-day Bartleby (notwithstanding its central casting coup: eternal manchild Crispin Glover as he who would prefer not to). The loud, musty production design—steeped in lime greens and tangerine oranges—smells of recirculated air and enervated ambition, but unfortunately, so does the movie itself. You'd think Melville had drafted a Saturday Night Live skit, replete with a supporting role for Joe "The Rock" Piscopo.

 
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