The Importance Of Being Earnest

on May 17, 2002 by Christine James
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   “An Ideal Husband” helmer Oliver Parker returns to the comedy of manners genre in another late-19th-century-England-set farce based on a classic Oscar Wilde play. “The Importance of Being Earnest” is just the sort of scrape Bertie Wooster or one of his friends might get into--only the protagonists here don't have Jeeves to extricate them from the repercussions of their backfired machinations.

   Jack (Colin Firth) is a man who, despite his humble beginnings (he was a foundling left in a handbag), has attained a respectable status in society and a lovely country home. However, in order to escape to the big city whenever he pleases, he has invented a brother named Earnest whom he claims he needs to visit. Further entangling himself in this deception, he takes on the alias himself when gadding about. This leads to trouble when his lady love, Gwendolen (Frances O'Connor), who only knows him under his pseudonym, innocently expresses an inordinate attachment to the name. More complications arise when his charming but self-serving best friend, Algy (Rupert Everett), decides to pass himself off as the eponymous figment to further his own purposes. Courting Jack's luminous young ward Cecily (Reese Witherspoon) under the Earnest persona, Algy finds as Jack did that his false name seems to have an undue bearing on his beloved's ardor, and coming clean, therefore, is made all the more difficult. Add to this the accidental convergence of all the key characters under one roof and the comedy of manners becomes a comedy of errors.

   The cast, also featuring Judi Dench as Gwendolen's archetypally stern and proper mother, is a dream assemblage. On this esteemed list of players, Witherspoon may seem like the poor relation, but, like her rosy-cheeked, starry-eyed character, her beauty, poise and insouciance make her the center of attention in every scene she's in. Starring Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Judi Dench, Frances O'Connor and Reese Witherspoon. Directed and written by Oliver Parker. Produced by Uri Fruchtmann and Barnaby Thompson. A Miramax release. Romantic comedy. Rated PG for mild sensuality. Running time: 100 min

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