The best moments in Oliver Parker's screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde's comedy "The Importance of Being Earnest" are when the movie just sits back and lets Wilde's supremely witty scenes play. Like the one in which the imperious Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench) interrogates Jack Worthing (Colin Firth), who is pleading for her daughter Gwendolen's (Frances O'Connor) hand in marriage. "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune," she hisses icily upon discovering his orphan status, "to lose both looks like carelessness."
The play is a total artifice, built on farcical symmetries: Jack and his ne'er-do-well friend Algernon (Rupert Everett) both have to pretend to be the nonexistent Ernest Worthing, for they have fallen in love with women, Gwendolen and Cecily (Reese Witherspoon), who insist on marrying men of that name. Probability wasn't at the top of Wilde's priorities. Parker, on the other hand, seems afraid that Wilde's theatricality isn't "cinematic." He encourages his cast toward a sotto voce naturalism and slices Wilde's scenes into fragments, scattering them around the "real" world to open things up. And the drawing-room settings get upgraded Miramax style: grand country estates and chambers worthy of monarchs.
When the movie misfires--in the dreadful "fantasy" sequences in which Cecily's girlish romantic dreams are staged as Pre-Raphaelite tableaux, or the jarring flashback revealing Lady Bracknell's "secret" past as a chorus girl--Parker just gets in the way, spoiling the rhythm of Wilde's shapely comic scenes with fussy business.
This may be a less than ideal "Earnest," but it still has delights, not least of all Anna Massey's Miss Prism, Cecily's dotty tutor, and Tom Wilkinson's Dr. Chasuble, her clergyman admirer. Firth's comic timing is subtle and seductive, and plays nicely off Everett's jaded foppery. Witherspoon is quite at home in the English surroundings, but surprisingly misses much of her character's humor. You'd think Lady Bracknell was a role Dench would hit out of the ballpark. She is funny (how could you not be, with these lines?), but she plays her with a severity more befitting her Queen Victoria in "Mrs. Brown." I wish she'd had more fun with the part: she gets Lady B.'s tyrannical side, but neglects her silliness. Wilde, after all, was never more serious than when he was being utterly frivolous.The Importance of Being Earnest