If you haven't read William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" -- and, let's be honest, you haven't -- Mira Nair's new film version will probably play as a reasonable approximation of Merchant-Ivory lite. There are sumptuous costumes, epic battle scenes, horse-drawn cabriolets, and, as to be expected, bewigged British thespians stacked up like cordwood. If the narrative jumps at times -- as though the reader were skipping ahead -- the movie's still a toothlessly pleasant bit of period tosh.
But there's the problem: Thackeray wasn't interested in being pleasant. "I want to leave everybody dissatisfied and unhappy at the end of the story," he once said about his cynical 1847 bestseller, and even if you didn't know that, "Vanity Fair" has a subtitle -- "A Novel Without a Hero" -- that could throw the shroud of death over a Hollywood pitch meeting.
What the book has is a great anti-heroine: Becky Sharp, the amoral, two-faced social butterfly who climbs the ladder until she gets the money and position she craves. It's a great part for an actress with the teeth to bite into it -- say, Reese Witherspoon, who before the "Legally Blonde" comedies proved she could play soulless and mesmerizing as Tracy Flick, the conniving high school student of 1999's "Election." Tracy Flick, Becky Sharp: they could be sisters in avidity, with the hiss of the snake and the edge of concealed knives in their names alone.
It's a huge disappointment, then, that Witherspoon and the director have neutered Becky Sharp. From a woman whose ambition was designed to reflect the social enterprise of early 19th-century England, she has been changed into a shrewd, somewhat misguided, essentially sympathetic heroine. She has been made lovable -- and a "Vanity Fair" with a lovable Becky Sharp has no reason to exist. It's as if Shakespeare had put Hamlet on Prozac: What's the point?
Nair nevertheless stages a lot of business within this vacuum. Characters come and go in Dickensian fashion: Becky leaves school with her best friend, Amelia -- an optimistic noodle who was Thackeray's parody of good-girl heroines and who's played utterly straight by Romola Garai -- and sets her cap for Amelia's brother Jos (Tony Maudsley), a twit recently returned from India. She takes a position as governess to a family of aristocrats lorded over by Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins, as seedy as his character's name); befriends Crawley's moneybag dowager aunt (Eileen Atkins, getting the movie's biggest laughs with the least expenditure of effort); and marries his dashing son Rawdon (James Purefoy) -- a soldier, a gambler, and as good a match for Becky as can be imagined. Naturally, she treats him like dirt.
Actually, they seem happy even bickering in poverty, so Becky's attraction to a nasty piece of peerage, the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), never makes much sense. Nothing in this "Vanity Fair" is ever quite Becky's fault -- not the flirtation with Amelia's louse of a husband, George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), not playing with the fire of the Marquess' decadent attentions. Witherspoon gets the accent and the bearing reasonably right, but everything else is missing, above all that inner jut of jaw that betrays Becky's intent at every turn.
Without it, she's perky and dull, and the rest of the cast suffers, too. The one character who invites interest is Dobbin, the British officer who pines for Amelia and who is played by Rhys Ifans with dyed hair and a stricken ardor that renders him weirdly immobilized. Dobbin's the only character who's on to Becky; he says of her, "Cats make better mothers." If only the evidence were onscreen.
Nair proved she could make a large cast spin in the enchanting "Monsoon Wedding," but she never finds a way to compress her 800-page source into cinematic shape -- you keep coming across lumps in the batter. Her most original idea is to amp up the Asian elements that hover in the novel's background: Indian musicians and entertainers, a full-blown Bollywood nautch dance performed by Becky and the Marquess' other kept ladies.
This isn't as far-fetched as it sounds -- Thackeray was born in Calcutta. But the scenes remain incongruous in the playing, like a hoedown at Tanglewood. It's exasperating, too: Nair is fiddling while her star refuses to burn. If Witherspoon had tapped into Tracy Flick's ruthlessness, or that of her Vanessa Lutz in the fearsome 1996 drive-in classic "Freeway," we might have had something here. Instead, it's as though Elle Woods from "Legally Blonde" had wandered into the wrong century. Thackeray was right -- all is vanity -- but even he might have marveled at the vanity of movie stars.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.