The Importance of Being Earnest

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In translating a play into a movie, a filmmaker can easily lose sight of the fact that the essence of a great play resides in its language and not in a movie's ability to go on location or add cinematic frills. In opening up Oscar Wilde's 1895 comic masterpiece, ''The Importance of Being Earnest,'' the director Oliver Parker, whose more straightforward adaptation of Wilde's ''Ideal Husband'' three years ago found an agreeable balance between period lushness and linguistic precision, has gone overboard. What would Wilde have made of the embellishments Mr. Parker has tacked onto the play like a reckless dressmaker tarting up a Chanel suit to resemble a Versace gown? Those additions include fantasy sequences, a ragtime band, a hot-air balloon and a horse-and-carriage traffic jam. An aggressively buoyant score (by Charlie Mole) washes through the movie, giving it a perky vo-dee-o-do flavor that feels more 1920's than 1890's. As much as possible, the play has been moved outdoors to intoxicate us with the rarefied air of an English country estate. And what of the language in a work where the refinements and ambiguities of speech are everything? Wilde's famous epigrams remain intact and are reasonably well spoken. But the extra visual accouterments have a profoundly distracting effect. They interrupt the rhythm and retard the momentum of brilliantly silly banter that could be described as incisive nonsense. When Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench), the play's ur-snob, declares, ''Ignorance is like a delicious exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone,'' she conjures a privileged, cucumber-sandwich world where a devotion to the superficial is a code of behavior and proof of social superiority. The genius of the play is the brilliance with which it simultaneously embodies and sabotages its concept. While celebrating brittle badinage as a comic art form and willful superficiality as the ultimate revenge on a cold cruel world, it makes its garrulous, dissembling aristocrats...
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