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"Vanity Fair"

Directed by Mira Nair.
Written by Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellowes and Mark Skeet.  Based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray.
Starring Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Rhys Ifans, and Gabriel Byrne.
Release Year:  2004
Review Date:  9/1/04


My friend Tricia came through again with a free pass to see the new Reese Witherspoon drama "Vanity Fair", and without this free pass, I might have lost my mind last night.

This is because after a solid first hour, "Vanity Fair" gets so bad, so painful, so ridiculous--so QUICKLY--that I almost got up and left for the first time in my movie-watching history.  Apparently based on some book that some guy wrote, the story follows Rebecca Sharp (Witherspoon) as she goes from a common beggarmaid to a ritzy soldier's wife as she ascends the social ladder in a way only writers would ever imagine.  Along the way her best friend Amelia (Romola Garai) falls in love with a soulless soldier named George (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), Rebecca marries a heartbreaker who also happens to be in the local armed forces (James Purefoy), everybody has kids, people fall in love with other people, and a whole bunch of other shit.

Now, these period pieces are always tough on me because the second they run long, I get agitated quite quickly.  In "Vanity Fair", when the story is focused just on Rebecca and her ascension through the ranks, it's a fun movie, thanks to Mira Nair, director of "Monsoon Wedding."  The comedic touches are quite good here, the photography is lush, and the storytelling doesn't feel rushed as we follow Rebecca's good fortunes while meeting Amelia's family and after she takes on a new governess position at the home of Sir Pitt (Bob Hoskins), meeting the family that will advance her position most diligently.  The best part about this first hour--and the actress that almost takes the movie away and runs with it--is Eileen Atkins as Miss Crowley, the mother of Rebecca's eventual husband and queen of so many one-liners, facial reactions and mini-coups in "Vanity Fair" that I can already see an Oscar campaign being designed for her, she's that good.  Geraldine McEwan does solid work here as well, as the annoying Lady Southdown, whose little coos after everything other characters say are laugh-out-loud funny.  These two women--apparently quite luminous on the English acting scene--help carry "Vanity Fair" through what should have been a much slower segment.

But, after Rebecca begins to fall for the Purefoy character, the film seems to hit the TiVo fast forward button, and we are suddenly whisked through a couple of romances, a pregnancy, a war (or maybe a battle, or maybe just a lunchtime skirmish...I was never really clear on this part), a bankruptcy, a death or two, you name it...all in about 80 minutes.  I know that it is always tough to film a novel, but if you are going to do it, you just have to decide early on that you can't beat the whole system in one movie.  Why not just concentrate on the Sharp character and develop a 150-minute movie about her?  As it is, we get mostly Sharp, but then way too many subplots for one movie to handle...and, it ends up hurting the whole project.  This makes all of the performances halfway through the film feel rushed, and I ended up caring less about the characters to the point where I just wanted it all to end.  Then, our sound went out for about two minutes of running time, giving me time to consider just up and leaving the thing altogether...but, Gabriel Byrne shows up late in this thing, and he does his best to make the last 20 minutes or so somewhat salvageable.

But, even with that, the ending of "Vanity Fair"...ugh!  Has anyone read the book and seen this film?  I would love to know what really happens in the book, because the film ending was just horseshit, right down to the last frame.  It felt like "Monsoon Wedding 2" by the end of things, and I just wanted to throw up on the seat!  Man, was that bad.  There is even some unintentional comedy in the later scenes as one of Amelia's best friends, William (Rhys Ifans), seems to have grown his hair to the point of hippie, and looking at it is just plain hilarious.  As many of you know, besides "Election" I could see no more Reese Witherspoon films and live a perfectly happy, healthy life, so not surprisingly I was not a fan of the star of recent "films" like "Sweet Home Alabama" and the "Legally Blonde" series (a series, for God's sake!) because of the me-me-me nature of all of her roles.  Man, somebody needs to give the girl a freakin' part where she is not the main character, like when she was in "American Psycho" or something like that.

"Vanity Fair" does start out well, but then it just dies and makes you suffer with it.

Rating:  Rental


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09