Whatever they’re saying, chances are Oscar Wilde said it first. Strangely, he didn’t say much in The Importance of Being Earnest , his most popular and enduring comedy, and a lot of what he did say is regretfully missing from the glossy new movie version by Oliver Parker, the same writer-director who put a fresh coat of varnish on Wilde’s An Ideal Husband . Despite the many liberties he takes to adapt Wilde’s arch style and dialogue to a movie for mass consumption, the delicious cast and a lot of cinematic “opening up” (gilt-edged theaters, posh cafés, jazzy music, the lush green English countryside and even a tattoo parlor!) conspire to turn a classic Victorian drawing-room comedy of manners into an enjoyable romp. Alas, it still pales in comparison to Anthony Asquith’s famous 1952 film version.
Purists will insist that Mr. Asquith’s dry, stagy, eccentric but riotous film was the definitive one. Mr. Parker’s spin is so busy that it assumes a chirpy tempo of its own, more in keeping with the demands of modern audiences, but it loses a lot of the wit, attitude and elegance of Wilde’s subtle mastery of the language. And no matter how hard they try to knock themselves out being frisky and charming, the new cast can’t hold a candle to Michael Redgrave, Joan Greenwood, Dorothy Tutin, Michael Denison, Margaret Rutherford and especially Dame Edith Evans’ titanic aria as the maddeningly eccentric Lady Bracknell. Still, let us leave that landmark film in its resting place, preserved in memory and on the shelves of video stores, and concentrate on the 2002 remake. It offers pleasures of its own.
Say what? Despite numerous Broadway revivals and even a musical version called Ernest in Love , you don’t remember what The Importance of Being Earnest is about? Utter silliness, that’s what. The fanciful plot-which even in 1895 gave new meaning to the word “contrived”-is a farce concerning two dashing, irresponsible London bachelors who both assume the name Ernest to woo the objects of their confused affections. Country squire Jack Worthing (Colin Firth) seeks the hand of the genteel but impulsive Gwendolen (Frances O’Connor) and comes to town to propose, but since she has always been attracted to the virility of the name Ernest, he passes himself off as a fictitious younger brother of the same name. Meanwhile, his arrogant, vain, extravagant cad of a pal, Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett), also posing as Jack’s brother Ernest, heads for the country to romance Jack’s 18-year-old ward Cecily (Reese Witherspoon, with a brilliant and unaffected British accent that never falters). Clearly it’s impossible for them to be in the same place at the same time. They can’t both be Ernest, although both ladies mistakenly think they’re engaged to the same man. A high point of the film occurs when the willful Gwendolen and the angelic Cecily pool their feminine wiles to bring their men to heel. Meanwhile, the delicate sauce of a plot thickens to pudding when the imperious Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother and Algernon’s aunt, dismisses Jack as a suitable candidate for her daughter’s hand because he was a foundling abandoned as an infant in a handbag in Victoria Station. When everyone descends unexpectedly upon Jack’s country manor, mistaken identities are revealed, scandals erupt and chaos ensues. The mystery of Jack’s birth is also solved, but not before Judi Dench’s Lady Bracknell-precise, intolerant, and snobbish to the manner born-has a cherished moment of regal hilarity when she looks down her nose and declares, “To lose one parent … may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” She is fine, and God knows she can act, but to hear Dame Edith Evans say that same line in the 1952 film is to feel suddenly the full impact of Oscar Wilde’s treacherous wit and wisdom, and the weight, too, of Victorian class-consciousness, circa 1895.
There are splendid turns by Anna Massey as Cecily’s pickled tutor Miss Prism, Edward Fox as Algernon’s long-suffering, underpaid butler, and Tom Wilkinson as the local rector who timidly pursues the sullen Miss Prism. What a tribute to his diversity and range. Curiously, Mr. Wilkinson also appeared as the beastly, violent, homophobic Marquess of Queensberry, who was responsible for Oscar Wilde’s downfall and imprisonment for “gross indecency,” in the excellent biopic Wilde . Now he’s here playing one of Wilde’s shy little subsidiary characters with an amour fou of his own.
Wilde might have enjoyed the newfangled camera work and even the jazz duet performed by Mr. Firth and Mr. Everett (unnecessary to the plot and utterly anachronistic), but I doubt he would have approved of the added bit where the ladylike Gwendolen has “Ernest” tattooed on her bum.
Oscar Wilde aimed for truth over illusions. The eye candy in Oliver Parker’s version seems to favor style over sincerity. The film is a fragile frolic, but the real theme enjoyed by countless audiences through the years-the importance of being earnest instead of deceitful in matters of the heart-still shines through the frosting.
Pacino Blinks in The Midnight Sun
Insomnia is a dark purple scar on the noirish landscape of psychological thrillers, with Al Pacino giving a creepy but mesmerizing centerpiece performance as a detective who discovers, while investigating the savage murder of a 17-year-old girl, that he’s more disturbed than the killer. Directed by Christopher Nolan, whose pretentious and confusing Memento ended up on a few 10 Best lists last year, Insomnia is a more conventional remake of a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. It’s a great improvement over Memento , but when it comes to cops fighting their inner demons in the line of duty, it never achieves anything like the quality of Sean Penn’s vastly superior film on the same theme, The Pledge . Still, there’s this to say: It beats the hell out of the cyclone of Hollywood thrillers we’ve been getting lately.
Mr. Pacino plays a famous homicide cop from L.A. who, accompanied by his younger partner (Martin Donovan), arrives in the frozen wastes of Alaska to solve the brutal murder of a local high-school girl. The nervous conflict between the two detectives is palpable: seems the internal-affairs department of the LAPD is about to ruin Mr. Pacino for planting evidence in an earlier case, and Mr. Donovan is on the verge of cutting a deal to clear himself of all charges. Driven by guilt, fear and resentment, Mr. Pacino is forced to go through the motions of solving a crime while trying to figure out how to save his own career. With all that nervous stress in a place where there is no nightfall, it’s no wonder he doesn’t sleep for seven days.
The irony of fate descends during a chase through a blinding fog, when he shoots and kills his partner in what may or may not be an accident, then hides his gun and pretends he thought he was aiming at the murder suspect. Nobody challenges him, especially not Hilary Swank as the rookie Alaskan cop who idolizes him. For a solid hour, it seems like a routine case-routine clues, routine evidence, routine questioning, routine suspects-and a routine movie. In fact, the first hour of Insomnia is so slow it guarantees a sure cure for its own title.
Then the pulse quickens and the pace picks up with the appearance of Robin Williams, playing against type as an eccentric writer of mystery novels who baits Mr. Pacino with the maniacal cleverness of one of his own pulp-fiction plots. He’s the killer, and Mr. Pacino knows it. But he’s also the only witness to see Al shoot his partner. Now it’s a case of two killers stalking each other, outsmarting each other and making deals to clear each other-but Mr. Pacino is the one with insomnia. The midnight sun keeps him up, and part of the fascination for two hours is watching him disintegrate. Bug-eyed and pasty as gravy, he has never looked so wasted. I mean, he always looks wasted, but in Insomnia he looks like a corpse waiting for an open-casket viewing. Naturally, it’s up to the smart lady cop to discover the truth in a blazing three-way shoot-out that wipes out everybody with more than three pages of dialogue. No wonder Mr. Pacino’s last line before he loses consciousness is “Just let me sleep.” I wasn’t sure if he meant in a bed or on a slab at the morgue, but I identified completely.
Insomnia doesn’t generate much tension. It’s laid-back and talky, with everybody reacting to each other in tight, punishing close-ups; it’s too measured and restrained for its own good. The crime is as dull as a rusty hinge, and there’s no suspense in finding the identity of the killer. Eschewing the violence in the Norwegian film, director Nolan treats the repellent aspects of the murder itself with an almost detached discretion.
At least the story isn’t told backwards, as in Memento . And the chilly atmosphere forged by the icy camera work of Wally Pfister does create a sustained mood of blue melancholia that makes an already unstable cop’s confrontations with his dark side seem doubly daunting. The miscast Hilary Swank looks as uncomfortable and out-of-place in a cop’s uniform as she did in the French period gowns of The Affair of the Necklace . Was that Oscar for Boys Don’t Cry a mistake, or does she just need a new agent? Martin Donovan, as the partner who exits early in a body bag, and Maura Tierney, as the sympathetic manager of the lodge where the cops are housed, are wasted. Mr. Williams is very odd indeed -squinchy-faced and querulous as a big hairy troll-but it’s fascinating to watch him play a villainous psycho, developing a straight dramatic role without a trace of shtick. He’s been a buffoon so long I had forgotten he could act.
Insomnia is not my kind of arsenic, but it’s so well-made and enigmatic I liked it anyway. I guess you could call this a mixed (and mixed-up) review-like the movie itself.