LITTLE ROCK Easy Virtue83Cast: Ben Barnes,Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth Director: Stephan Elliott Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, partial nudity Running time: 93 minutes
Easy Virtue is welcome in that it represents a partial return to form for Australian director Stephan Elliott, who gave us the flamingly generous drag queen saga The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert 15 years ago. (Unfortunately the catastrophic negative reception to his follow-up film - Welcome to Woop-Woop - at Cannes in 1997 pretty much drove him underground, causing him to swear off directing for the lower profile of a humble screenwriter. A horrific skiing accident, which required three years of rehabilitation, didn't help either.)
On paper, applying Elliott's outre sensibility to a Noel Coward play set in the jazz age seems promising. But Easy Virtue is almost undone by the casting of thoroughly modern Jessica Biel, who seems less a worthy opponent than an outclassed sparring partner for viciously on-form Kristin Scott Thomas.
It's difficult to say whether the problem is in the casting and chemistry or with Biel - she seems similarly out of her depth in the otherwise fine The Illusionist and in the execrable Home of the Brave. As lovely and game as she appears, there's very little evidence to suggest she's a real actor. (One can admire her willingness to accept these challenges without pretending she's met them.)
While there are all sorts of movies that don't require real actors to work, this dark comedy of manners about the maintaining of airs by the dwindling English upper-middle class between the world wars is not one of them.Even as overhauled by Elliott and co-writer Sheridan Jobbins, it's the sort of dialogue-driven affair that most probably belongs on the stage where the lines can be crashed and swung like cutlasses instead of opened up with jivey music and motorcycles roaring through the foxhounds. Elliott does his best to make the production swing, with some eccentric camerawork and the arch habit of having one character occasionally break into song, but the net effect is that of trying too hard to distract from the sometimes painful performance at the crux of the movie.
Biel plays Larita, an American race-car driver and widow (not divorcee, as in the original play) who makes John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), a foppish English boyshe meets in Monaco, her trophy husband. When the couple visits his family in the English countryside, his icy mother, Veronica (Thomas), assumes Larita's married John for his ironically nonexistent money. Tea and tennis and loosing of the hounds commences, as the stereotypically buttoned-up British disapprove of Larita (who honestly doesn't do much to endear herself) while she makes a connection with her dissolute "Lost Generation" father-in-law Jim (Colin Firth).
While much of the movie simply doesn't work - the inadvertent slapstick killing of a family pet is neither surprising nor funny - it's partially redeemed by Elliott's willingness to go for broke. For instance, while much of the Coward and Cole Porter jazz-age music seems superfluous, an anachronistic rendition of the '70s disco chestnut "Car Wash" is delightful. So is the subversive butler (Kris Marshall). And Firth - who seems to relax Biel in the few scenes she has with him - is a wonderfully seedy presence.
But the overall effect is pretty meager. Easy Virtue feels labored - we get the sense of Elliott furiously hurling the contents of his directorial toy box at the screen, only to watch it all slide off as effortlessly as silk off the shoulders of the impregnable Jessica Biel.
MovieStyle, Pages 35, 40 on 06/19/2009