Biel looks stunning, but makes a mess of Easy Virtue

Easy Virtue

on April 23, 2009 by Steve Ramos
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The admirers of actress Jessica Biel (her male fans especially) may take some pleasure at her glamorous wardrobe in Easy Virtue. Biel plays Larita, a roaring twenties American divorcée battling her bigoted, English, aristocratic in-laws in this attractive but broken period comedy based on a 1924 Noel Coward play. Matching Biel in good looks is her handsome co-star Ben Barnes, who plays Englishman John Whittaker, Larita's new husband. Biel receives the marquee treatment in Easy Virtue since the film revolves around Larita's fish-out-of-water situation at the Whitaker's English country estate, but supporting work by veterans Colin Firth as Larita's kind father-in-law and Kristin Scott Thomas as her prudish, disapproving mother-in-law provide the best performances in the fractured film. Easy Virtue, despite its polished production values and the commercial uptick of being based on a Coward play, is a clumsily written, surprisingly foolish and misdirected adaptation from Australian filmmaker Stephan Elliott. With positive word-of-mouth unlikely and the prospect of Biel's numerous boy fans attending a period arthouse comedy slim, Easy Virtue will play well to older specialty audiences fond of British period fare but fail to attract modest cross-over business necessary to qualify as an arthouse success.

Larita (Biel) arrives in 1924 England on the arms of her dashing, aristocratic husband John Whitaker (Barnes). Whitaker's sprawling country estate and leisurely lifestyle take Larita by surprise, but her greatest challenge is her snooty mother-in-law (Scott Thomas), who considers her pretty American daughter-in-law a stain on her family's upper crust status. When unsavory details about Larita's personal life are revealed, Larita's relationship with her new husband unravels and she confronts her newfound family.

Elliot, best known for his 1994 hit musical comedy The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, brings enthusiasm to Easy Virtue, last adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock in a silent version in 1928. Clearly intent on energizing Easy Virtue for contemporary moviegoers, Elliot upends Coward's wit with misplaced slapstick, out-of-control screwball pacing and new dialogue co-scripted with Sheridan Jobbins that sadly fails to match the intelligence of Coward's original writing. While its core plot is mostly loyal to Coward's play, a modern woman fighting the prejudices of an English aristocratic family, Easy Virtue dissolves into a clumsy comedy of visual gags, including a joke involving a squashed doggie. It’s a period piece with solid eye candy but one worth avoiding. If Elliot's goal was something akin to Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, meaning a reinterpretation of a classic work, he fails.

Elliot is brave for tweaking Coward's play and making Larita, of all things, an American racer from Detroit. But Easy Virtue, his first directing effort in nine years after a ski accident, is an earnest misstep, a film too far removed from the sharp qualities that make Coward's plays enjoyable to this day.

Elliot's adaptation stumbles are especially disappointing because Easy Virtue 's production values are so top-notch. Cinematographer Martin Kenzie captures the beauty of the English countryside and the Whittakers' stately manor. Production designer John Beard makes stylish use of the film's ’20s era setting. Costumer Charlotte Walter drapes Biel in beautiful outfits. Music supervisors Tris Penna and Michelle De Vries complement the comedy with Jazz age standards and retro interpretations of recent tunes; Biel even sings Mad About the Boy.

Biel appears in almost every scene but it doesn't take long to see that she and Noel Coward are poorly matched. Period comedies can be difficult and while Biel is at ease in her retro wardrobe she is thoroughly unbelievable as a Jazz Age heroine. Her lack of credibility becomes more disappointing because Barnes, best known for his titular role in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, shows depth and charisma as John Whittaker.

Biel will continue to enjoy starring roles but hopefully she will focus on contemporary fare. Elliot will also rebound, perhaps a stronger storyteller for trying his hand at adapting Coward. Perhaps the biggest misstep belongs to Sony Pictures Classics, who purchased the film after its premiere at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. Instead of investing in Biel's arthouse breakthrough they're the proud owners of her biggest misstep to date.

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ben Barnes
Director: Stephan Elliot
Screenwriter: Stephan Elliot and Sheridan Jobbins
Producers: Joseph Abrams, James D. Stern and Barnaby Thompson
Genre: Period Romantic Comedy
Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief partial nudity, and smoking throughout.
Running time: 93 min
Release Date: May 22 NY/LA

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