Helen Hunt as Mrs. Erlynne
Scarlett Johansson as Meg Windermere
Milena Vukotic as Contessa Lucchino
Stephen Campbell Moore as Lord Darlington
Mark Umbers as Robert Windemere
Roger Hammond as Cecil
John Standing as Dumby
Tom Wilkinson as Tuppy
Giorgia Massetti as Alessandra
Diana Hardcastle as Lady Plymdale
Shara Orano as Francesca
Jane How as Mrs. Stutfield
Bruce McGuire as Waiter Joe
Michael Stromme as Hotel Desk Clerk
Antonio Barbaro as Paulo
Directed by Mike Barker
This bland Oscar Wilde knock-off only offers a few laughs when compared to the many movies Wilde has influenced. The few times it picks up any momentum, it gets dragged down by the flat delivery of a grossly miscast Helen Hunt.
After being forced out of New York due to various infidelities, Mrs. Erlyne (Helen Hunt) travels to the coast of Italy, where she gets caught up in the gossip of the region’s upper class clientele by disrupting the marriage of Robert Windermere and his wife Meg (Scarlett Johansson), while trying to fend off the advances of the lovelorn Lord Augustus (Tom Wilkinson).
If you start watching this ’30s era romantic comedy wondering why everyone speaks like Oscar Wilde, it may be good know that this was actually based on Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” although only fans of the original work might know how much of that play remains. But considering how many really good movies set in that period have come out in the last few years–”Gosford Park” and “Bright Young Things” come to mind–it’s surprising how flat this one feels, despite a respectable cast.
Certainly, many great plays have been turned into decent movies, but the problem with this one, evident from the very first scene, is that Helen Hunt is completely miscast as Mrs. Erlyne. Hunt isn’t particularly attractive or sexy, so she’s not particularly believable as a wanton seductress who drives men wild, while living off them as their mistress. Hunt’s Erlyne generally lacks personality due to the actress’ flat delivery, which makes it hard not to cringe every time she opens her mouth. She actually brings the movie down whenever she’s on screen, which fortunately, isn’t for the entire film, because the movie cuts between Erlyne’s story arc and a number of concurrent ones, intercut with gossip sessions by the island’s grand dame, the Contessa (Milena Vukotic), and scenes of the idle rich lounging around spouting Oscar Wilde’s misogynistic quips.
Although the film’s set-up seems to suggest a complex comedy of errors involving many characters, it ends up being a bit unfocused, as you’re never sure whose story is the most important one. The best of these interlocked stories involves Scarlett Johansson’s Lady Windermere, a young newlywed, who must fend off the advances of the womanizing Lord Darlington, played by Stephen Campbell-Moore. The latter probably gives the best performance in the film, and the fact that he also starred in the far superior “Bright Young Things” makes you realize how much this movie is lacking. Johansson continues to show her ability to adapt to different eras and environments, pulling off a far more credible performance than Hunt. Her scenes with Moore are terrific, especially as she starts to doubt her husband’s fidelity, as word gets back to her about his dalliances with Mrs. Erlyne. Tom Wilkinson is good as always as the love-struck Lord Augustus, who is willing to overlook Erlyne’s dalliances with other men, but it really isn’t much of a stretch for the actor.
Really, only a few of these characters are remotely interesting, and it’s surprising how blandly the dialogue is delivered, considering the flamboyant nature of the original author. For the most part, the film just motors along without any real high points, while Wilde’s derogatory views on women seems even more dated and out-of-place, rather than being particularly funny.
When the various story arcs converge at the area’s last party of the season, Erlyne and Windermere both show up wearing the same dress, and Johansson fills the dress much better, adding insult to injury after stealing the movie from under Hunt. As a showcase for two generations of actress, Johansson certainly comes out looking better, but for the most part, it’s the guys who end up stealing the show.
The Bottom Line:
If you’re a fan of Oscar Wilde’s work, you might appreciate the film for his witty banter, but you’re more likely to be appalled by the once-great Helen Hunt, who doesn’t work in this type of role and setting, and doesn’t make much of an effort to make it work.