Un-Fair! Reese-- not dull, but not Sharp

We knee-jerk liberals hear a title like Vanity Fair and automatically think, "Vanity Unfair!" After all, we're the spiritual children of Marlon Brando's rebel in The Wild One who, when asked what he was rebelling against, replied, "Whatta you got?"

Vanity Fair offers liberals a heroine to champion in Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), a young woman scheming to move from the have-nots to the haves in early 19th-century England. Is it coincidental that this film opened in the U.S. during the Republican Convention? Not likely.

As is often the case in English society, many characters in this latest adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel are neither haves nor have-nots, but "hads," being somehow one step removed from their families' money.

Mira Nair's film is more for fans of Witherspoon than Thackeray, which makes economic sense because there are more of the former than the latter, especially in the movie-going crowd. Legally red-haired– although the deceptive poster, which looks more like Nicole Kidman, conceals that– the actress, save for a convincing English accent, is just a transplanted Elle Woods. She isn't dull, but she's not Sharp.

Vanity Fair looks so good and is so entertaining in the early going– thanks especially to Eileen Atkins' performance as Aunt Matilda– that it's easy to enjoy the star and overlook flaws in the script. But as Atkins disappears, Witherspoon gets further out of her depth, and as the screenplay goes to hell, Nair's tricks are reduced to minor, fleeting distractions.

After more than two hours, the film realizes it's overstayed its welcome, and an epilogue brings it to an end with dizzying speed and a lack of logic that will leave your head spinning. A character who was dropped at a pivotal moment suddenly reappears, another turns on an emotional dime, and still another shows up to bring things full cycle with an irony negated by the star's sunniness.

Becky is the child of poor but artistic parents. She gets an education and takes a job as governess to Sir Pitt Crawley's (Bob Hoskins) daughters. En route she stops at the home of her only friend, Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), to practice her flirting.

Brought to London by Crawley's sister, Matilda, Becky marries one of Crawley's sons, Rawdon (James Purefoy), who loses his inheritance. A similar fate befalls George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) when he marries Amelia.

It's never clear whether Becky loves Rawdon. There's no chemistry between them, but maybe chemistry hadn't been invented yet.

At least two scenes are so reminiscent of Gone with the Wind they bring home the vast difference between Witherspoon's Becky Sharp and Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara. In one, Becky plays Scarlett to Amelia's weak, weepy Melanie; in the other, Becky/Scarlett tries to keep Rawdon/Rhett from leaving her.

Crossing from England to the American South, Leigh nailed the accent, but that was just the starting point for her brilliant performance. Making the journey in the other direction, Witherspoon starts and ends with the accent.

Almost as limited, Nair succeeds with the visuals in a manner nearly worthy of Merchant Ivory, from the opulence of jewels and peacocks and Mayfair before the streets were paved to squalor that would have made Dickens close the curtains on his carriage; but she fails in most of the storytelling aspects.

For much of the running time Nair gets so many of the small things right it almost doesn't matter that the big ones are wrong. But she can't get away with it forever and ultimately Vanity really is unfair.