Easy Virtue Movie Review

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert helmer Stephan Elliott has translated Noël Coward's Easy Virtue, a breezy and witty take on the post-war British upper class, into a sort of gussied-up comedy of manners that falls somewhere between Meet the Parents and Junebug. Beholden more to Coward's stage play than Alfred Hitchcock's 1928 silent adaptation, Elliott's version highlights a burgeoning 25-year-old Coward, still apprehensive of his talents, though that isn't to say there aren't some choice bits.

The film opens on a newsreel of Larita (Jessica Biel), an American racecar driver, with "Mad about the Boy," a song Coward famously wrote, playing over it. The footage opens up and we see Larita taking the eye of young John Whittaker (Prince Caspian himself Ben Barnes). Not long after, they are married and heading towards his family home in the country to meet his parents (Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth). From there it takes little time for the mother, whom Thomas plays with her uncanny icy veneer, to decide that she will wreck the marriage to the scandalous American.

John's sisters (Kimberly Nixon and Katherine Parkinson) adore Larita at first but quickly switch gears after she accidentally kills the family dog and inadvertently causes the younger daughter to go naked under her skirt during a can-can dance. Even John's fondness for her begins to wane when Larita decides to fight back and an old flame reappears. The only person who consistently favors the young American is the father, played with requisite charm and humor by Firth.

Only one of Coward's brilliant snaps appeared in Hitchcock's version: John's mother snidely asks, "Have you had as many lovers as they say?" to which Larita replies, "Of course not. Hardly any of them actually loved me." Elliott's film gives more due to Coward's classic wit and gift for retort, and it is directed with the sort of comedic verve that suggests that its ambitions are solely to reimagine the stage play on the big screen. In this area it is wholly successful, with a nod to Kris Marshall as the sly, hilarious butler, but as comedy filmmaking goes, it is a rather languid composition. At one point, a jazzy rendition of the otherwise anachronistic 1970s soul/funk classic "Car Wash" plays as John tries out a new mower. It is exactly the sort of zany touch that would fit in a more unpredictable work but feels out of place in Elliott's otherwise by-the-books form.

Easy Virtue is a passable entertainment with some excellent zingers and puns, but it never fully bears its fangs. It is early Coward and has all the markings of a comedian and writer still locating his tone. Even worse, Elliott and co-screenwriter Sheridan Jobbins add some heavier moments of melodrama and catharsis near the end of the film that drag on the kinetic pace. Thankfully, the actors, especially Biel and Firth, keep the motor running when the script and the direction begin to flag. Paradoxically, however, it's the director's ultimate goal that bogs down Virtue: His reliance on and desire to highlight Coward's wit gives him less incentive to use his own intelligence and cunning as a filmmaker, making his film little more than a fan letter.

Of course, the only thing worse than being talked about...

Cast & Crew

Director :

Producer : Joseph Abrams, James D. Stern,

Starring : , , , , Kimberly Nixon, Katherine Parkinson


Comments

Easy Virtue Rating

" Grim "

Rating: PG-13, 2009

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