Starring: Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas
Directed by: Stephan Elliott (“Eye of the Beholder”)
Written by: Stephan Elliott (“Eye of the Beholder”) and Sheridan Jobbins
On paper, an era piece starring Jessica Biel just doesn’t look right. It’s like Cameron Diaz in “Gangs of New York” or Angelina Jolie in “The Good Shepherd.” It gets the job done, but seems incompatible and obscure.
Biel, however, proves that she can break past her well-known status as a Hollywood sex symbol to play an independent 1920’s American woman in “Easy Virtue,” an adaption of Noel Coward’s play of the same name. Here she flips a British aristocracy’s world upside down when she marries into their family.
Not only is Larita Whittaker (Biel) American, she also smokes, races cars, and speaks her mind no matter who’s around. Although somewhat endearing at first to a few members of the family (with the exception of the uppity matriarch – played by the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas – who is offended even by her bleached-blonde bob), Larita slowly gets under everyone’s skin with her bubbly personality, vulgar opinions, and floozy-like reputation when her new hubby John (Ben Barnes from “Prince Caspian”) brings her to the family estate.
Larita, however, isn’t going to bend for anyone, including her spouse who has never worked a day in his life and is comfortable being catered to hand and foot while at home. What is supposed to be a three or four-day stay for the newlyweds turns into weeks. Soon, Larita realizes there really is no exit strategy from what she refers to as the “petrified circus” unless she plans it herself.
As a comedy of manners, “Easy Virtue” is mostly chippy and light on its feet especially when peppered with a very interesting soundtrack (a jazz version of Rose Royce’s 70’s hit “Car Wash” is one of the more ambitious song choices). There are few gags that run too long and other than Thomas, Biel, and Colin Firth, who plays the man of the mansion, everyone one else in the family blends well into the British countryside like all the other set pieces.
In the final act, debut screenwriter Sheridan Jobbins and director/writer Stephan Elliott (“Eye of the Beholder”) decide to turn playful sarcasm between characters into all-around revulsion. From here, “Easy Virtue” is no longer an energetic collection of zingers and quickly changes tone. It’s the darker turn where “Virtue” stops being a farce and makes a mad dash into melodramatic mediocrity. How very unbecoming.