Somewhere buried beneath the frippery and undergrad-comedy-revue jokiness of Oliver Parker’s adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde, yearning to get a word in edgewise. Yet even the bit of badinage that rises above the hubbub or the wisp of dither from Judi Dench as the imperious snob Lady Bracknell is enough to remind anyone who has ever read Wilde’s classic comic play or seen the definitive 1952 film version with Edith Evans in full billow that the 1895 satire is a masterpiece of truth about class and gender disguised as an airy trifle.
”I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.” This is wisdom to live by — if you can find it in the clutter. Which is why it’s the naturally ignorant, for whom this harlequin folly serves as a first exposure to celebrated Bracknellisms, who will suffer most from the new and unimproved version. The production, from the director who previously made Wilde’s ”An Ideal Husband,” starring Rupert Everett, seems like the efforts of a bluffing student who, with no great insight into his subject and a big paper to write, puts the report in a snazzy binder and rearranges pictures cut from magazines into interpretive collages for extra credit. Only in this case, the clean geometry of Wilde’s satire is broken by incoherent, extraneous references to everything from hot-air ballooning to the dreamy 19th-century paintings of Edward Burne-Jones.
And so when Everett appears this time, hair a shoe-polish black and lip curled with upper-class-twit entitlement as lounge-about gentleman Algernon Moncrieff, he’s first seen running through London from mysterious pursuers like a suspect out of Sherlock Holmes. As Lady Bracknell’s daughter, Gwendolen Fairfax, Frances O’Connor is encouraged to project the sexual assertiveness of a 1930s Hollywood dame. Colin Firth’s Jack Worthing, in love with Gwendolen, perambulates like a character in a Terry Gilliam time-travel saga. Reese Witherspoon, as Jack’s ward and Algernon’s love interest, Cecily, burns off leftover mannerisms from ”Legally Blonde,” while Anna Massey and Tom Wilkinson bill and cuckoo-coo as a primly silly governess and doddering clergyman. At one moment the mood seems influenced by Buñuel, at another by the kind of romping British comedies once made by the famous Ealing Studios (recently revived with this film as its first production).
Dench, dressed in cake-frosting colors (and huge hats that might well be actual cakes), wisely doesn’t try to compete with Evans’ indelible interpretation. But in unwisely attempting to one-up Wilde’s perfectly knitted lines, Parker unravels the narrative and undermines, rather than enhances, the rhythm of the playwright’s commentary. Gwendolen is seen getting the name ”Ernest” tattooed on her rump, but why? Cecily has a vision of Algernon as a knight in actual shining armor, while Edward Fox, as Algy’s poker-faced butler, plays in a ragtime band during his off-hours. The antics are wacky — but far from Wilde.