The wittiest script of the new year was written 114 years ago by Oscar Wilde. This adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan is, as is often said of action flicks and movies based on video games, review-proof. It's full of Wildean epigrams and bons mots; the comic structure is impeccable; and it's been handsomely photographed by Ben Seresin in a Depression-era setting, first in New York City, and then on Italy's Amalfi coast. Watching it, I thought it was a better tribute to the legacy of Merchant-Ivory than The White Countess. Yet, at the same time, it's just as elegantly irrelevant.
Some nationalities and incidental details have been changed: Scarlett Johansson plays the young American innocent married to a millionaire; Helen Hunt is the 40-ish fellow Yank who descends upon the newlywed Windermeres with predatory intent; Brits led by Tom Wilkinson round out the cast.
If you haven't been to the theater in the past century and don't know the plot, or its key revelation, I'm not going to spoil it for you. Wilde's mechanics—abetted by director Mike Barker and writer Howard Himelstein—are still quite effective, while the staging hasn't been shoved far enough ahead into the right century. The movie is much too decorous and completely lacking in vitality. Hunt, with a chin now weirdly frozen and changed following her four-year break from screen acting, looks like an aging flapper desperate to keep her youth and clothing allowance. (And the gowns hang quite nicely on her still.) There are telephones and a few passages of jazz, but Woman still wears the cut of another time. Neither Hunt nor Johansson, ripe as ever, seems right for the period, unlike the English performers, who dutifully match the carpets, upholstery, and drapes, and are generally much more comfortable with the language.
The plot still depends on letters, notes, and checkbook stubs; eavesdropping on illicit conversations is also central. All of which made me think how it would work much better now with cell phones, text messaging, IM, chat rooms, screen names, and all our other modern devices for cyberseduction. (Rent Closer or The Dying Gaul for a few tips in this regard.) "Marriage thrives on mutual deception," says Lord Darlington, and the same is equally true of online dating. (PG)