The Importance of Being Earnest
Produced and distributed by Miramax Films
Directed by Oliver Parker
Screenplay by Oliver Parker from Oscar Wilde’s play

The Sum of All Fears
Produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Phil Alden Robinson
Screenplay by Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne from Tom Clancy’s novel

Oscar Wilde believed one’s first duty in life was to be as artificial as possible.  This, he reasoned, was a corollary to the inescapable truth that nature as we know it invariably imitates art.  Paradoxical?  Not in the least.  Only provocative.  Wilde simply stated anew this self-evident thesis: We cannot see the world except through the prisms of language and numbers.  Better to acknowledge this truth frankly than to mistake the figurative for the actual.  As devoted to symbolism as he was, Wilde also realized that outworn imaginative forms could become traps barring us from new and more creative modes of thought.  Anyone who has compared Roman with Arabic numerals knows how necessary it is at times to sacrifice venerable but cumbersome tradition for nimbler means of apprehending reality.

Accordingly, Wilde’s finest work, The Importance of Being Earnest, stands poised on the knife-edge dividing nature from artifice, flesh from word.  It asks us to reconsider what we think we know about ourselves and our world.  As such, his play requires exquisitely self-conscious performances.  The actors must play their stylized roles knowingly, revealing themselves to be as fully aware as we are that they are creatures of a script.  Unfortunately, in Oliver Parker’s adaptation, all but one of the performers fail on this account.  Only Reese Witherspoon, the lone American in the cast, seems to know what Wilde required.  As the ingenue Cecily Cardew, her studied spontaneity gives her character just the right amalgam of cloistered innocence and brazen experience.  If only the other performers were as nimble.  Colin Firth makes Jack Worthing a dour dodderer; Rupert Everett’s Algernon is never more than bitchy; Frances O’Connor’s Gwendolen is pretty but regrettably guileless; and—the biggest disappointment—Judi Dench’s Lady Bracknell speaks her lines with a frostiness wholly devoid of self-regarding irony.  All this can be traced to Parker’s evident misunderstanding of the play.  He takes it to be a light comedy of late Victorian manners instead of what it really is: a witty inquiry into the mediating forms through which we’re vain enough to suppose we know ourselves.

In short, Parker has failed to give Wilde his due.  This is nowhere more apparent than in his decision to open the play cinematically, taking it out of its theatrical home into the hurly-burly of London.  Here, among other distractions, we watch Gwendolen having her rump tattooed with Ernest, the name she adores.  I suppose Parker thought this was cute and modern.  Instead, it’s merely vulgar.  Worse, it misses the point.  Although Gwendolen insists she could never marry a man so obtuse that he forgot to have himself christened Ernest, the play’s title gives the lie to her headstrong absurdity.  Contrary to the text, it spells the name “Earnest.”  Surely, this was Wilde’s clue that Gwendolen’s obsession is less with a name than with finding a man to love her unconditionally.  Elsewhere, Parker reveals Lady Bracknell to have been a chorus girl who acquired her aristocratic standing by seducing Lord Bracknell.  Cute again, but wholly untrue to the play, which, among other things, wants to explode ingrained upper-class pretensions.  Were Lady Bracknell to have been a high-kicking bloomer girl in youth, her aristocratic arrogance could hardly be thought ingrained.

Worst of all, however, is the handbag.  The play’s central conceit arises when a nanny aptly named Miss Prism confuses an infant in her care with a manuscript of a three-volume novel.  In a moment of mental abstraction, she deposits the baby in a more than usually capacious handbag and tosses the text into a perambulator.  As usual, Wilde’s farce is in earnest.  His point is that life and art are routinely confused in the course of human affairs.  For better and for worse, our lives are inescapably shaped by our species’ collective imagination encoded in our various social conventions, including such doubtful manifestations as the Victorian triple-decker romantic novel.  (Anyone who has had to endure a Martha Stewart-inspired wedding reception knows this to be all too true.)  Not satisfied with Miss Prism’s recitation of her error, Parker has decided to show it to us.  In flashback, we watch her lower the infant into that notorious handbag.  This is an unpardonable gaucherie.  By rendering the play’s conceit literal, Parker robs it of its power to amuse and suggest.  Once seen, the error is merely ridiculous.

Parker’s film is not without amusement, but it is not the amusement Wilde intended.  It is worth seeing in the way a college production of Hamlet is worth attending.  It evokes the elements of the play, however poorly understood, so that we can recall its wonders in better productions.  Of course, if you would prefer the real thing, find Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film on video.  This masterful and hilarious adaptation is played flawlessly by Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, Margaret Rutherford, and Joan Greenwood, among others.  They knew exactly what Wilde meant.

Despite its evident artificiality, The Sum of All Fears would not have won Wilde’s applause.  His green carnation would have wilted once he realized that director Phil Alden Robinson expects us to take this rancid confection straight: no effete self-consciousness here!  This is blood-and-guts manliness ripped from the pages of that cold-eyed martial realist Tom Clancy.  Of course, those less demanding than Wilde may find its shenanigans a hoot.  I was troubled, however, by the all-too sobering premise ticking away at the center of this otherwise absurdly clockwork narrative.

The film opens with an Israeli A4 fighter armed with a nuclear bomb being shot down on the Golan Heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Twenty-nine years later, an Arab farmer discovers the bomb and sells it to a terrorist organization.  (The film explains that the otherwise nuclear-innocent Israel just happened to come into possession of this weapon through the good offices of the CIA.  We’re further instructed by helpful captions that the Israelis had been forced to consider using it when it appeared their army would be overrun on the ground.  Somehow, this information did little to dispel my real-world misgivings about what’s currently transpiring in the Middle East.)  With this as his plot trigger, Robinson calls in everyone’s favorite CIA analyst, Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck).

A confession before proceeding: I’ve never been able to make it through an entire Clancy novel.  Of course, I’m proud as can be that a mick like myself has put Americans on notice that a man named Ryan stands between them and perdition.  Nevertheless, I have little staying power when it comes to the techno talk that fills his narratives.  What I have gleaned from the little I’ve read is that Clancy is a fair-minded, tough-talking, populist conservative quite able to detect b.s. in high places.  Assuming I’m right, this latest Ryan movie seriously betrays Clancy’s political and moral inclinations, even though he is listed as its executive producer.

Robinson has sanitized Clancy’s text with Hollywood’s de rigueur cleanser.  Gone are the Arab and the Native American terrorists.  They have been replaced with more acceptable villains: a coterie of former Nazis in cahoots with a loosely knit network of right-wing movements (what else?) around the world.  The leader of this organization, Dressler (a perfectly reptilian Alan Bates), exhibits such a virulent dedication to fascism that he’s pleased to compare his ideology to AIDS.  As with AIDS, he muses, fascism requires a strong host to spread itself.  Although Hitler had been a willing carrier, he turned out to be inadequate to the job.  He foolishly tried to take on America and Russia at once.  Dressler, convinced that he’s the stronger host, has a different strategy.  He intends to provoke the superpowers into a mutually destructive war.  Once the dust settles, he sneers, the fascist virus will become fully “airborne.”  What a premise!  A fascist who thinks of his ideology as a viral scourge!  Here’s someone we can really hate to our heart’s delight.  No need for wimpy moral distinctions regarding America’s provocations of the world’s less fortunate.  Like Ian Fleming’s Ernst Blofeld, Dressler is a satisfyingly cartoonish archvillain.

There would be nothing wrong with this entertaining nonsense if the film did not claim to be a serious dramatization of our struggle against international terrorism.  One scene in particular calls attention to the filmmakers’ would-be high-mindedness.  Ryan finds himself on a sea-borne launch headed for the wilds
of the Ukraine with John Clark (Liev Schreiber), an enigmatic CIA commando.  When it looks like there’s going to be rough stuff, Clark, the seasoned warrior, hands the untried analyst a gun.  “I’m not an operative,” Affleck’s Ryan protests in his best yuppie whine.  “Relax, Double-O Seven,” Clark chortles, leaving the neophyte to guard their boat as he conducts his mission onshore.  Robinson puts us on notice: This isn’t a James Bond fantasy; it’s the real thing.  (Sure.  Hardened CIA operatives always press untrained, reluctant wimps like Affleck into commando derring-do.  Those Langley boys, such jokers.)

Despite Robinson’s denial of Bondian provenance, Affleck’s Ryan becomes the one-man savior of his nation.  When a Yeltsin-like Russian premier keels over from his excessive habits—too much booze and, this being a Hollywood production, elevated cholesterol—no one at the CIA knows anything about his successor, Nemerov.  No one, that is, but Ryan, who just happened to write a book on this Soviet-nurtured statesman.  Quickly and, of course, accurately, Ryan takes Nemerov’s measure and predicts his likely intentions.  This makes Ryan so indispensable to formulating American policy that he’s instantly installed in the U.S. president’s Cabinet meetings.  As for Nemerov, needless to say, he is a noble-minded, American-loving moderate.  He’s even read Ryan’s book with warm approval.  Later, as Dressler’s plot gathers momentum, Ryan unravels it all by his lonesome.  And, of course, he always manages to be where the action is.  When the Bond franchise foists its fooleries on us, the Broccolis at least have the grace to issue us a license to laugh.  Robinson, on the other hand, urges us to genuflect at the altar of his film’s ersatz sincerity.

Despite its pretensions, Sum is moderately watchable, its portrayal of a small nuclear explosion being perhaps its best moment.  Robinson makes the blast and its aftermath eerily convincing.  Instead of ear-walloping, Dolby-surround-sound explosions, flying bodies, and timpanies beaten to the maximus, he pulls his camera back from the detonation and turns the sound off in order to render the shockwave’s deafening and disorienting impact.  Cars are slowly and silently blown over onto their roofs; a helicopter is soundlessly buffeted like a balloon caught in a sudden downdraft; shouting voices are muffled; colors are drained from the screen.  It’s like being in a ghastly dream from which you’re struggling desperately to awaken.  Robinson’s restraint makes this climactic moment all the more unnerving.  Then he throws it all away with cheap heroics, having Affleck run to ground zero sans radiation suit and duke it out with the nuclear perpetrator.  Oh well, it’s only a film, isn’t it?

As I write, The Sum of All Fears is enjoying a huge return at the box office.  It’s clearly benefiting from its depiction of the kind of disaster that seems all too probable in the world we’ve created for ourselves.  Could audiences be taking comfort in this gimcrack production?  Surely, life has more dignity than to imitate the artless.