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EASY VIRTUE (director/writer: Stephan Elliott; screenwriters: Sheridan Jobbins/based on the play by Noël Coward; cinematographer: Martin Kenzie; editor: Sue Blainey; music: Marius de Vries; cast: Jessica Biel (Larita), Colin Firth (Mr. Jim Whittaker), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs. Veronica Whittaker), Ben Barnes (John Whittaker), Kris Marshall (Furber), Kimberley Nixon (Hilda), Katherine Parkinson (Marion), Pip Torrens (Lord Hurst), Christian Brassington (Philip), Charlotte Riley (Sarah); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Barnaby Thompson/Joe Abrams/James D. Stern; Sony Pictures Classics; 2008-UK/USA)
Awkwardly conceived in a superficial reality that leaves its punch lines without much punch.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Australian cult filmmaker Stephan Elliott (“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”/”Eye of the Beholder”/”Welcome to Woop Woop”) directs this satirical take on the stuffy but crumbling upper-class Brits of the roaring ’20s. The drawing-room comedy is based on the 1924 play by Noel Coward (written when he was 25), and is scripted by Elliott and Sherdan Jobbins. It’s enhanced by a number of Cole Porter tunes, that give life to the jazz-age setting. It was previously filmed in a 1928 silent by Alfred Hitchcock, and was more loosely based on the play than even this loose version.

Elliott has sport with Brit snobbery, hypocrisy, its insulation, its sexual repression, its distrust of anything American or new, and that the landed-gentry is threatened by the nouveau riche.

John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) is the raffish nerdy only son of the upper-crust Whitakers–the sardonic unshaven dad, Jim (Colin Firth), is a hopeless romantic still nursing a dead feeling over the loss of the men who served under him during WW I and who is prone to throw out a steady barrage of disparaging one-liners, and mom, Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas), is the bossy and uppity one.Thomas does her icy hauteur matronly number to perfection, and steals the acting honors in her unglamorous role.

Mom is upset when her bubbly son, John, her only hope to carry on the family dynasty, brings home from his French Riviera vacation a glamorous peroxide blonde new American wife, Larita (Jessica Biel), after they had a whirlwind romance and an impetuous marriage. The fashionable Larita is a snappy and brash Detroit gal from a working-class family, who is famous for driving racing cars, living in the fast-lane, and that her previous older hubby died of cancer and that his controversial death was believed to be a result of euthanasia but that could not be proved in a well-covered scandalous trial. The poisonous Brit family also includes John’s grumpy unmarried sisters Marion (Katherine Parkinson) and Hilda (Kimberley Nixon), who like mom take a strong dislike to the flashy Larita and try to destroy the marriage. Also around the mansion is the wise butler Furber (Kris Marshall), who with his asides provides comic relief siding with Larita, and Sarah (Charlotte Riley), the welcomed guest. She’s the sweet girl from the same upper-class, who was John’s fiancee before jilted but graciously shows no bitterness to either John or Larita.

A battle of wits ensues between the acerbic mom and the tough-minded daughter-in-law, as mom wants sonny boy to stay put in the 400-acre crumbling palatial country estate and run it to help get them out of financial difficulty instead of dwelling far away in London; the bride, on the other hand, finds the atmosphere here putrid and can’t wait to leave for the city. The sparks fly over mom’s bitchiness, the accidental death of Mrs. Whittaker’s toy dog Chihuahua caused by the American (making for some unfunny sight gags), a ruined fox hunt as the American rides a motorcycle instead of a horse and the unsuitable gift by the American of a modern Cubist painting that doesn’t fit into the old-fashioned decor and mom turns up her nose and likens the painting to easy virtue. The visit puts the marriage in jeopardy and this cheeky but facile screenplay offers some lighthearted subversive reactions to class, the distorted Victorian values and quickie marriages. It’s a charmer for those amused by the good-natured spirit of its jabs at the dying upper-crust, but others might find it awkwardly conceived in a superficial reality that leaves its punch lines without much punch.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”