A pleasant but flawed and ultimately lightweight comedy of manners, Easy Virtue is a mainstream comedy disguised as an upscale period piece — sort of like Meet the Parents in corsets.
Aside from a sepia-tone news-reel-style credit sequence, the film — an adaptation of a minor Noël Coward play — takes place entirely on and around the sprawling English country estate of the Whittaker clan.
Set between the wars, with the old social order breaking down, Easy Virtue opens with this family in a fragile state. Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth) is a broken, sardonic man who "wandered" across Europe following the Great War before reluctantly returning home. Elder daughter Marion (Katherine Parkinson) is a basket case, pining for an absent beau who might well be a figment of her desperation. Younger daughter Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) is a nervous but eager teen.
Holding it all together is stiff-lipped matriarch Ms. Whittaker (Kristin Scott-Thomas, doing well in a thankless role), anticipating the homecoming of her son John (Ben Barnes), who shows up not only with a wife but a race-car-driving American wife, Larita (Jessica Biel).
The film's familiar Old World vs. New World dynamic is embodied by the rivalry between mother and daughter-in-law, Ms. Whittaker resentful of Larita's freedom and also threatened by what her presence could mean for the future of the family. Similarly, Larita feels constricted by the customs of her new family. She's a wild American who wants to smoke, drive fast, and listen to jazz, not traipse through the gardens, eat bland food, and play tennis on the lawn.
This fish-out-of-water material descends into cringe-worthy farce in an extended bit involving the fate of the family pet, a pushy Chihuahua, and the slapstick takes another wrong turn with a risqué dance performance from young Hilda.
Typical of Easy Virtue's forced, out-of-character zaniness: When the inevitable foxhunt happens, an at-first-reluctant Larita zooms past the horse on a motorcycle.
Easy Virtue is on steadier ground when focusing on Coward's witty, barbed language, which is sharp throughout but almost assuredly more prominent on stage than on screen.
If Easy Virtue is notable for anything, it's Biel's attempt at Serious Acting. She's gone period before, fading into the background while Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti chewed scenery in The Illusionist, but is probably better known on screen for her more, um, visual performances in otherwise forgettable films such as Summer Catch and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Typical of the times, Biel's a major celebrity for not having accomplished much.
Though Biel is game here in her attempt to handle this against-type role, she's awkward in spots and her command of the wordplay is uneven. She seems American, no doubt, but doesn't always convince as a woman of the '20s.
Opening Friday, June 19th