Oscar Wilde won. That's the conclusion I draw from the sense of irony that has swept through public and private life in the last 20 years or so. Consider the news alone, delivered to us today by the likes of David Letterman, Jay Leno and Jon Stewart, Wilde's answer to Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings. We don't want our news straight these days, too painful and boring. We want it bent, which is funnier and more truthful, somehow. Despite the sobering effects of Sept. 11 (Dave, Jay and Jon were briefly chastened), Wilde, who built his career on a string of paradoxes, would feel right at home in contemporary America, so much so that he might have to invent a whole new esthetic in order to hold on to his status as cultural outlaw. Earnestism, perhaps?
Although it appears to have no subject at all, The Importance of Being Earnest, which opened in London the very week Lord Queensberry accused Wilde of being a "somdomite," was the summation of everything Wilde stood for and against. Seriousness? Against. Frivolity? For. And yet, beneath the play's frivolous surface lies a serious indictment of Victorian ideals. "To have a style so gorgeous that it conceals the subject is one of the highest achievements," Wilde once said. If true, then Wilde belongs in the pantheon, because The Importance of Being Earnest is a triumph of style over substance over style. Being earnest was the least important thing in the world to Wilde, except as a pose. But for Wilde, a pose is a pose is a pose.
Well, I've delayed long enough. It's time to announce that Oliver Parker's movie version of Wilde's play is a veritable disaster. That it opens with a chase scene seems harmless enough. That it resorts to fantasy sequences can perhaps be forgiven. That it's set largely outside, where the sun has a way of melting away the comedy, may even have been a risk worth taking. But that it's poorly cast, poorly acted and entirely misconceived ' this presents a problem. Either by accident or on purpose, Parker has come up with the most...earnest Earnest one could imagine. With the possible exception of Rupert Everett's Algernon, the actors have neglected to send up their characters. They're playing them straight. Ladies and gentlemen, Oscar Wilde was not straight.
Colin Firth, who brooded through A&E's Pride and Prejudice, plays Jack, and believe it or not he's still brooding. Jack is the man who would be Earnest, but only in name, so as to woo Gwendolyn (Frances O'Connor). And the comic tension is supposed to come from the fact that earnestness is a pose. As Jack's friend Algernon, who also pretends to be named Earnest, so as to woo Reese Witherspoon's Cecily, Everett fares a little better; duplicity becomes him. But what are we supposed to make of Judi Dench's Lady Bracknell, who instead of being a send-up of a battle-ax is simply a battle-ax? What was Parker thinking? My guess is that he was trying so hard to avoid overplaying the comedy that he wound up underplaying it, if not erasing it altogether.
"What the actors have to do," theater critic Eric Bentley once wrote, "is play against the absurdity of the farce and not with it." I'm not sure I agree with that, but it's all a matter of degree, ultimately. And to my mind, Anthony Asquith's 1952 movie version, which starred Michael Redgrave as Jack and Edith Evans as the hilariously imperious Lady Bracknell, caught it perfectly, the wit delivered high and dry (like on "Frasier"). Here, Parker leaves his actors high and dry; they seem like escapees from an amateur theatrical. And he paces the thing like a dirge. Only Dench delivers her lines with any kind of crispness. Properly directed, she might have come up with a memorable Lady Bracknell, the living embodiment of Queen Victoria's "We are not amused."
Instead, we are not amused. I wasn't, anyway.