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Easy Virtue
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by Peter Sobczynski

"No Virtues--Easy Or Otherwise--To Be Found Here"
1 stars

On the surface, it would appear that “Easy Virtue” would be the perfect tonic for moviegoers who have already grown weary with the bombastic blockbusters that have dominated the early going of the Summer 2009 moviegoing season. After all, it is based on a play from no less a writer than Noel Coward (a work previously filmed by no less of a figure than Alfred Hitchcock in the early days of his career), it contains such reliable figures as Colin Firth and Kristen Scott Thomas in its supporting cast and its evocation of the 1920’s-era English countryside is always lovely to look at. Unfortunately, as it turns out, none of these assets wind up making much of a difference because it makes so many other mind-boggling mistakes along the way, including one epic bit of miscasting, that what should have been an entertaining diversion for audiences in the mood for an explosion-free evening at the movies instead turns out to be an excruciating misfire on virtually every level.

Biel stars as Larita, a spunky young American lass making her way through Europe as a racecar driver. After winning (temporarily) a big race in Monaco, she meets and impulsively marries John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), a well-to-do British lad, and goes off with him to meet his family for the first time at the lavish country estate where he grew up. Inevitably, this doesn’t come as much of a thrill to John’s mother (Scott Thomas), the frosty matriarch of a clan and a woman who is so completely offended by the very idea of a person like Larita--someone gauche enough to be both American and a free spirit--that she essentially brands her new daughter-in-law as little more than a gold-digging whore before she even lays eyes on her for the first time. Despite Larita’s attempts to ingratiate herself with her new family, things quickly go bad and Mrs. Whittaker, backed by her snotty daughters, begins an unrelenting campaign to drive her away for good that not even her husband is willing to put up much of a fight over. Instead of simply caving in, Larita decides to dig in her high heels and stand up for herself, finding an unlikely ally in her new father-in-law (Firth), a world-weary man who has grown increasingly disenchanted with the stuffed shirts that he is surrounded with and who considers this brash newcomer to be a kindred spirit. As a result, a battle of wills develops between the two women in which the key weapons are shocking secrets and snaky bon most delivered at close range for maximum impact.

When Coward originally wrote the play back in 1925, it was meant to serve as a satire on the pretensions of upper-class British society in the years following World War I, especially those who continued to lord their alleged superiority over others even as they found their money and position slipping away, and dared to suggest that the more relaxed and free-wheeling attitude represented by America was superior to Britain’s class system. However, it would seem that director/co-writer Stephan Elliott (in his first effort since 1999’s “Eye of the Beholder”) either missed this point or decided that it would hold little interest to contemporary viewers. Instead, the film tries to position itself as a flapper-era take on “Meet the Parents” featuring numerous scenes in Larita tries and fails to befriend her new family and winds up inspiring offense (as when she gifts them with a spectacularly inappropriate painting), embarrassment (as when she inadvertently inspires a sister-in-law to perform a bottomless can-can dance in public) or bereavement (as when she accidentally kills Mrs. Whittaker’s beloved pet) at every turn. The problem here is that Elliott approaches this material in such a broad manner that the jokes don’t work by themselves (as anyone who has seen “A Fish Called Wanda” knows, it is possible to wring laughs from the sad demise of a pet but this film has no idea of how to go about getting them) and they juxtapose uneasily with the dry wit of Coward’s original play. Elliott has also made the bizarre decision to try to contemporize some of the material by throwing the occasional modern-sounding phrase into the dialogue and by including Twenties-style renditions of more contemporary tunes on the soundtrack--while it might have sounded like a funny idea at the time, hearing period-style renditions of such tunes as “Car Wash” and “When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going” proves to be more distracting than enchanting.

Speaking of anachronistic elements that prove to be more distracting than enchanting, the presence of Jessica Biel in the role of Larita is sure to go down as one of the most epic casting miscalculations to come along in a long, long time. She is undeniably gorgeous and when she has been given decent material, as she had in “Ulee’s Gold,” she has shown herself to be a capable actress in the past. The problem is that there are some actresses who are completely comfortable with taking on period roles (such as Helena Bonham Carter and Kate Winslet) and there are those who are unable to shed their contemporary skins to be even remotely convincing in such parts. Right from the start, it becomes painfully evident that Biel falls into the latter category. Although she is supposed to be playing a modern-for-the-times gal, there is not a single scene here in which she doesn’t seem like anything other than a hot actress playing dress-up for a “Vanity Fair” photo shoot. (For example, while the works of Noel Coward are not exactly known for their macho bravado, it is still disconcerting to see an adaptation in which the female lead’s musculature is more impressive and imposing than that sported by the male.) She plows through her lines with the aplomb of a high-school student who can read the words but not the music and before too long, her very presence winds up throwing the entire enterprise out of whack. My guess is that Biel was presumably cast in the role on the theory that her current status as a top-tier object of lust would be enough to lure some people into the theater. Her casting was a gamble, to be sure, but a gamble that craps out before our eyes so spectacularly that there is a good chance that it will go down alongside John Wayne‘s turn as Genghis Kahn in “The Conqueror“ as one of the all-time great examples of movie miscasting. (To be fair, she does demonstrate a pleasant singing voice here and there but since this isn’t a full-blown musical, that asset doesn’t make much of a difference.)

As for the others, Barnes, who made virtually no impression on anyone last year in “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” is once again so bland and unmemorable that he comes across as nearly invisible even when he is front-and-center during the proceedings. Kristen Scott Thomas, on the other hand, is memorable for all the wrong reasons--her take on Mrs. Whittaker is so shrill and one-note that she comes across with all the grace and subtlety of fingernails on a chalkboard. The closest thing to a good performance here comes from Colin Firth as the bored and vaguely appalled Mr. Whittaker. However, as things progress, it becomes difficult to determine whether we are watching an actor doing exemplary working conveying such feelings or a genuinely bored and appalled actor unable to completely mask his feelings as he glumly goes through his paces. Either way, when he finally jumps into the roadster that grants him his freedom in the last scene, most viewers will want to follow along with him on the ride with the only regret being that they didn’t leave sooner.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17857&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/28/09 23:58:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/22/10 Carol Miles Mr. Firth, you'd make a great corpse in a murder mystery 2 stars
8/27/10 emily sand Mr. Darcy a member of the lost generation 1 stars
5/13/10 Lisa Brady Oh god! Annual worst pc of the year lists should be named after Colin Firth. 1 stars
6/14/09 marilyn I agreed with everything you said. Wasted evening and money 3 stars
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  22-May-2009 (PG-13)
  DVD: 15-Sep-2009


  DVD: 15-Sep-2009

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