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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST **

CAST: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O'Connor, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Anna Massey, Edward Fox, Charles Kay

DIRECTOR: Oliver Parker

The important thing to remember when turning Oscar Wilde's sublimely amusing play into a movie is that it should be funny, not silly. Anthony Asquith, a director admired more for his efficient craftsmanship than his comic flair, kept that in mind and managed to get quite a few laughs back in 1952 from the triumphantly trivial story of two Victorian bachelors who lead frantic double lives in order to stave off tedium and to advance their oddball romantic agendas. Asquith certainly wasn't hindered in his efforts by a cast that included Michael Redgrave and Michael Denison as the deceitful Jack and Algernon, Joan Greenwood and Dorothy Tutin as Gwendolen and Cecily, the women they've targeted for marriage, Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, the most imperious of social snobs, and Margaret Rutherford as the bungling Miss Prism, who left baby Jack in a handbag in Victoria Station.

If it worked 50 years ago, why shouldn't it work today? It should, but it seldom does in this strained, cutesy, busily cinematic interpretation by Oliver Parker, who previously dusted off Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" for the benefit of the great movie masses. He's certainly opened things up--there's plenty of camera moving-and-jumping, but very little visual wit. Worse, the verbal wit in many instances has been blunted, lost in the rush of actors running wildly, but not Wildely, about instead of settling down to the elegant, splendidly theatrical business at hand. True, Judi Dench is entertaining, if not particularly subtle, as the manipulative Lady Bracknell; Anna Massey is a joy as Miss Prism; Tom Wilkinson is fine as her foolish suitor; and Rupert Everett is Rupert Everett. What about all-American Reese Witherspoon in the role of flighty, virginal Cecily? She gives it her best shot, but she'll never be legally Brit.