Penalties for Ernie withdrawal

Movie: The Importance of Being Earnest

Our Rating: 3.00

It's dangerous business indeed to complain that any movie released after Memorial Day is too low-key, yet that's exactly the case with "The Importance of Being Earnest," writer/director Oliver Parker's second adaptation of the words of Oscar Wilde. (The first was 1999's "An Ideal Husband.") To interpret Wilde's comedy of manners and mistaken identity, Firth has assembled a capable cast of actors -- including Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Judi Dench and Reese Witherspoon -- and instructed them to play the material with a solemnity that's utterly at odds with its innate whimsy.

This, after all, is a story based on the idea that two women would love the men in their lives largely because of their belief that each was named Earnest. That their names are actually Algernon Moncrieff (Everett) and Jack Worthing (Firth) represents the outer crust of the flim-flam these scalawags attempt to perpetrate against their respective pursuits -- the romantically inclined Cecily Cardew (Witherspoon) and the flirtatious Gwendolen Farifax (Frances O'Connor). Presiding over the whole confused business is Lady Bracknell (Dench), whose dotty ideas of social identity make her the main vessel of Wilde's poison penmanship.

Dottiness, though, is absent from Dench's portrayal, which barely allows more room for frivolity than her Queen Elizabeth I in "Shakespeare in Love." Neither do the male leads embody any especial rogue spirit, behaving more like a poker-faced pair of refugees from a lost episode of "Masterpiece Theater." Instead of drawing comedic heat from his actors, Parker throws in some unexplainably vulgar side dishes -- like a ludicrous shot of Gwendolen having the name "Ernest" tattooed on her rump -- that drag the production from seriousness to schizophrenia.

Still, this is hardly a terrible film; its source material has a timeless wit that's hard to extinguish. And there's nothing disgraceful about the performances -- they're simply all in the wrong movie. Watching this all-too-"Earnest" bunch, one wishes for a head tic, a stammer or any other comic mannerism that would impart a sorely lacking sense of fun. One pines, to be specific, for Hugh Grant, and then immediately rues the ignominy of being put in that position.