"I've never been so bored or frantic in my life," says one of the bright young things at the start of "Bright Young Things," and at that point you may already be tempted to agree. We're in a roistering high-society party in London sometime during the 1930s: hot jazz, loose women, cocaine making stiff upper lips all the stiffer. First-time director Stephen Fry drenches the scene in red and scampers from one brilliantined character to another, and you wonder how on earth we're supposed to care about any of them.
That we come to care for some of them is a mark of how well this busy, unfocused, yet still acridly funny and moving adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel "Vile Bodies" succeeds. Fry, an actor and all-purpose personality in England, was once a bright young thing himself (he's 47), and he knows about the ways flaming youth can fox-trot along the lip of the abyss. Waugh himself called his tale "a welter of sex and snobbery," and if "Things" isn't quite that good, the filmmaker gets the joys of the night before and the silences of the morning after.
Our tour guide is Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore), a young writer both upper-class and impoverished who's relying on the sale of his first novel to a crass Canadian press magnate (Dan Aykroyd, fun but out of his depth). Adam's manuscript is confiscated as smut by a customs inspector, and one of the jokes is that the hero keeps coming into money only to see it flit out of his grasp.
Until he has a nest egg, marriage to girlfriend Nina (Emily Mortimer) is out of the question. Nina is the most incandescent of the bright young things, suspended by threads of privilege she knows won't hold forever. Thus her insistence on a dowry of sorts, and thus the other men that cluster around, foremost an avid second cousin named Ginger (David Tennant).
The plot of "Things" is pretty much one party after another, with awful, amusing scenes of comeuppance sandwiched between. A bright young wannabe takes the in crowd back to her house for a wee-hours snort, and her father turns out -- oops -- to be the prime minister. A young lord (James McAvoy), all title and no money, turns to spying on his friends for the press baron's gossip column; so will Adam when his coffers run low. Miles (Michael Sheen) takes a race-car driver (Alex Barclay) for a boyfriend, and the whole gang descends on a country road rally like hedonists pouring into church.
Fry, well-connected lad that he is, salts "Bright Young Things" with cameos: Peter O'Toole as Nina's titled father (he lends Adam money but signs the check "Greta Garbo"); Richard E. Grant as a priest; Stockard Channing as Mrs. Melrose Ape; dear, ancient John Mills as a coke fiend.
Registering more strongly are Jim Broadbent as an ecstatically sozzled Colonel Blimp type who may or may not owe Adam 34,000 pounds and Fenella Woolgar as Agatha, the most eccentric and blithe of this bunch and the one who pays the heaviest price. Before that happens, we're treated to the sight of Agatha careening down a lane in Jimmy's race car like a female Mr. Toad.
Mortimer, sadly, never makes Nina as fascinating as she needs to be, but Moore registers strongly as the flickering conscience of the group. Fry moves the action up a decade or so from the book's time period, mostly so he can bring on World War II and a tacked-on happy ending. It's not necessary. "Bright Young Things" is at its most sympathetic and cruel when Agatha peers out a window at the morning and says, wonderingly, "So many little people. What do they do with their lives?"
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bright Young Things
Directed by: Stephen Fry
Written by: Stephen Fry, based on the novel Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Starring: Stephen Campbell Moore, Emily Mortimer, Fenella Woolgar, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Broadbent
At: Kendall Square, West Newton
Running time: 106 minutes
Rated: R (drug use)