"Easy Virtue" takes a well-worn plot and dusts it off: What does a stuffy family do when someone new and wholly different enters the fold?
In this case, the loose adaptation of Noel Coward's classic play about hypocrisy never quite answers the question, mainly because the plot gets altered so severely. It's full of gorgeous misty scenery, ancient manorhouses and some wonderful acting from the British "family," but unfortunately it's undermined by the presence of Jessica Biel -- not only can she not act, but her character is a 2-D pain in the backside.
After a vacation in the south of France, young John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) brings his new wife home to the family estate -- an American racecar driver named Larita. His mother Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas) takes an instant dislike to her (for reasons later revealed), and Larita quickly rubs the family the wrong way by whining about the house and local customs. She wants to get back to London, she hates the country, and she only gets friendly with John's war-scarred dad.
And the family becomes increasingly displeased with Larita as a series of accidents (squashing the chihuahua), misunderstandings and attention-getting stunts take place -- and soon a cold war of sorts has broken out between Veronica and Larita. But the whole mess really starts when news arrives from America about some skeletons in Larita's closet that she neglected to mention to John...
Noel Coward's original play was all about hypocrisy -- presumably the hypocrisy of the mother and sisters for disliking Larita. But Stephan Elliott has whittled away some parts of the original play and recrafted it: now it's part dark comedy, part drama, part romance (past, present and future) and has a new ending and some very different plot twists (Larita's scandalous criminal conviction).
The story unfolds slowly in a haze of cigarette smoke, country mist and greenhouse flowers, and Elliott pumps up the fun with vintage music and Cowell's sharp dialogue ("I don't feel like smiling." "You're English dear. Fake it"). The growing battle between Veronica and Larita is fun to watch as they try to one-up each other (hello, Picasso nude!), but there are some truly sad moments as well, such as when John discovers how hard his mother has worked for their family.
But there are some moments that feel incredibly awkward, such as a tango number between Firth and Biel near the end. And the whole dog-squashing thing was just gross and tasteless.
Unfortunately, Larita sours the plot; it doesn't help that the one-note Biel plays her with blank eyes and a petulant pout, which fail to give Larita any depth. Presumably she's supposed to be the clever and modern heroine, but she ends up seeming snotty, inflexible and totally insensitive (such as when she mocks the local traditions... on her FIRST NIGHT). When she isn't whining at John for "not loving me better," she's flirting with his dad (which undermines the whole idea that she isn't an "easy virtue" type).
Instead, you end up feeling sorry for the demonized Mrs. Whittaker: she's frantically trying to hold her family together as the estate slips away, with no help from her mocking husband. Thomas' brittle body language and taut face speak volumes (certainly more than Biel's). Colin Firth does a good job as the broken ex-Army Major who inexplicably seems to loathe his wife, and the gorgeous Barnes exudes boyish passion and innocence as John (until he has to grow up in a big way). And man, can that boy sing!
"Easy Virtue" is a gorgeous little piece filled with great actors, but unfortunately an unpleasant lead character and wooden actress throw it off kilter. But it's definitely worth watching for Thomas, Firth and Barnes.