Vanity Fair

How do you take a book subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero” and make a movie with the tagline “A Heroine Will Rise”? Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair provides the answer: badly. William Makepeace Thackeray, generally described as a cheerfully acerbic social satirist, did not, I think, set out to inspire an uplifting rags-to-riches piece of eye candy; his Vanity Fair survives due to its power as social reportage and portraiture, and also, probably, his winking narrative voice. The novel ends thusly: “Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.” Well, how do you end a Reese Witherspoon movie on that note?

One character in the movie Vanity Fair is allowed Thackerayan qualities — the Marquess of Steyne, played by Gabriel Byrne with such glowering, mordant disdain for the hollow society he was born into that Byrne almost seems to be speaking for the author. And the Marquess does get to ask, perhaps rhetorically, “Which of us is happy in this world?” Nobody, really, except Becky Sharp (Witherspoon), whose up-and-down navigation of the social ladder is the movie’s chief focus. One needs a scorecard to keep track of Becky’s various conquests, not to mention the people who function as satellites around her sphere; the script scarcely bothers to fill in the blanks, and late in the game we receive one of those forlorn titles, “12 Years Later — In Germany.” Germany? Twelve years later? Huh? Shouldn’t Reese at least have a few extra wrinkles?

The Witherspoon of perhaps eight years ago — she who enthusiastically headlined such confrontational indies as Freeway and Election — could easily have handled a Vanity Fair true to Thackeray. But here we have the post-Legally Blonde Reese, who appears to have airbrushed any flint or perversity out of her official Hollywood head shot. Her Becky is charming enough, and easy on the eyes while draped in Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s elegant costumes. But the Becky of this movie is a good-hearted blank who pits herself against the snobs and wins, to the supposed delight of the audience, when the moral should be more like the computer’s dictum in WarGames: “The only winning move is not to play.” (Yes, I enjoy being perhaps the only Vanity Fair reviewer to reference WarGames.)

The director Mira Nair has run hot and cold with me; I enjoyed her Mississippi Masala, hooted at her Kama Sutra, and missed her Monsoon Wedding and Hysterical Blindness (for HBO). Much has been made of the factoid that both Nair and Thackeray were born in India, and the film does wake up belatedly when some belly dancers (led by our Reese) take the stage — although no movie should be allowed to get to the hour-and-forty-five-minute mark and then have a character announce “The entertainment is about to begin,” which raises the question of where it’s been hiding for the last 105 minutes. Anyway, Vanity Fair has about as much to do with India as Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle does, and Nair just doesn’t have the temperament to tell a story in which her heroine’s ambitions are rendered hollow. She’s very much into the whole grrl-power Bend It Like Beckham thing, which is nice but not Thackeray, who was not nice.

Anyone nursing a sore butt from Vanity Fair would do well to go back to 1975 via DVD time-travel and look up Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, also from a Thackeray novel; Kubrick decidedly shared Thackeray’s acidic point of view. Regarded at the time as an overdesigned yawner, it holds up today as an elaborate joke — a three-hour epic with a completely useless non-hero at its center. Lest I sound sexist, I would nominate Lina Wertmuller — whose Seven Beauties remains, for me, the greatest film ever crafted by feminine hands — as a director whose vision would have coexisted peacefully with Thackeray’s. As it is, the Vanity Fair we have received is merely the Oscar bait of the moment, ending not with doubts about attaining desire but with an image of Reese Witherspoon astride a happy elephant. Yay! England sucks and India is cool! Well, except for that troublesome caste system, of course.2

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