Thursday, May 21, 2009

In Theaters: "Easy Virtue"

I can’t imagine seeing three more comforting words at the top of a British comedy than “Ealing Studios Presents.” It conjures up images of Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob and countless others—although, come to think of it, maybe those aren’t the best films to put in your viewers’ minds, because you then have quite a bit to live up to. Easy Virtue doesn’t quite pull it off.

It’s based on the play by Noël Coward, previously filmed as a silent comedy by Alfred Hitchcock, who hadn’t quite found his signature style yet. The director this time around is Stephan Elliot, who did The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and little of consequence since. His adaptation gets off to a very promising start; after a brief and bewitching silent-movie style opening, we’re introduced to the Whittaker family. They’re dysfunctional in a very particular (and very funny) upper-crust British kind of way, keeping up appearances while snipping at each other at any and all opportunities.

Mr. Whittaker is something of a wreck; he’s played by Colin Firth in a performance that’s just plain fun to watch, wandering around the house with a two-day beard and tossing out good lines like well-aimed tennis balls. Most of the time, his target is Mrs. Whittaker, his smug and nastily bitter wife, played by Kristen Scott Thomas in a smug and nastily bitter mood. Their daughters are basically entitled little brats. Then their son John (Ben Barnes) returns home with his new wife Larita (Jessica Biel), who they’ve already dubbed “the floozy.”

These opening scenes are beautifully done; Coward’s text and Elliot’s adaptation (with Sheridan Jobbins) are snappy and fast, full of good jokes and nice details, even if the direction and cutting isn’t always as nimble as the script (in scenes with an abundance of people, Elliot doesn’t seem quite seem sure what to do with his camera). Everything’s moving so quickly, and Firth and Thomas are so damned good, that it takes us a while to notice that Biel has been completely miscast.

You can see why Elliot cast her; she certainly looks the part (i.e., able to turn every head in the room), and there’s nothing a director likes more than to take the pretty ingénue who no one takes seriously and extract some kind of a brilliant performance out her. Likeable and attractive as she is, Biel just doesn’t have “it,” or at least doesn’t have the particular “it” required for this role. She certainly can’t hold her own against a cast this formidable (she comes closest in the nasty little sequence where her and Thomas finally go to war); many of her line readings fall flat, and for the most part, she’s just kind of present and that’s all.

And that’s why she’s so wrong for this film. There’s a scene near the end of the picture when she makes a big appearance at a snooty party where everyone has been whispering about her, but she’s not enough of a force of nature to stop the room they way she’s supposed to, and to do what she does after that moment. This role requires an actress who projects moxie and toughness, who is ultimately fierce and headstrong and doesn’t give a damn, and the problem with Jessica Biel is that she’s still at that stage in her career where she wants the audience to like and accept her. She doesn’t seem capable of taking over that room; she looks like she’s afraid she’s being rude.

The other real problem is, I’m sorry, with the source material. I know it’s some kind of blasphemy to critique an untouchable like Noël Coward, but the third act gets bogged down in a creaky, contrived crisis, which causes all kinds of tired melodrama (and scenes rife with the possibility of unfortunate playing). Plus, the jokes dry up (again, forgive me if I’ve got this wrong, and Elliot merely took a the jokes out), and the story (or at least, this particular staging of it) doesn’t have strong enough legs to support its turn to the serious.

The music is also a problem; many of the music cues are inexplicable jazz-baby re-workings of 1970s and 1980s funk and pop songs, like “Car Wash” and “Sex Bomb” and, worst of all, the Billy Ocean groaner “When The Going Get Tough, The Tough Get Going,” which plays over the end credits, presumably to ensure the audience exit quickly for the next screening. It’s clearly somebody’s idea of a cute, clever musical gimmick, but it’s a mere annoyance.

If it offered nothing else, Easy Virtue would warrant a glance for Thomas’ intelligent work and Firth’s performance of elegant, bruised grace. And it’s pretty and the costumes look great and all of that. It’s just disappointing that it takes so many wrong turns, because it starts out with such wonderful pizzaz.

"Easy Virtue" opens in limited release on Friday, May 22nd.

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