In "Easy Virtue," Jessica Biel ("7th Heaven") has a grand time playing a "wicked" American woman whom an upper-crust Brit (Ben Barnes) takes home to "Meet the Parents" in 1920s rural England. And how do they hate her? Let me count the ways: she's considerably older than their darling son and brother, she wears pants and smokes, she styles her hair in a bob, she earns a living driving race cars, she has a reputation for being "fast," and along the way they learn she also had a husband who died under suspicious circumstances. Oh, and she's a feminist. Never mind that she's his wife, whom they're meeting for the very first time. What's not to hate?
Based on a 1925 play by Noel Coward, "Easy Virtue" has a narrative ease. It also has a nice flair for capturing the social milieu of the 1920s and the way those changes seemed like an all-out assault to old-guard conservatives like this landed and titled British family. At times "Easy Virtue" feels like a Jane Austen novel/film set 200 years into the future. Other times it feels like an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel/film in which humor, not drama, predominates. And at times it feels like a PBS version of "Meet the Parents," complete with a pampered family pet and the inevitable run-in that the outsider has with it--all of which adds a little four-legged farce to this comedy of bad manners. Though "Easy Virtue" didn't exactly tear up the awards circuit, winning only the Audience Award at the Newport Beach Film Festival, it's a witty, well-written and well-acted comedy that's entertaining for the whole 96 minutes.
The filmmakers take a few liberties with the play, including the circumstances surrounding a painting for which Larita (Biel) posed in the nude and the film's whiz-bang ending . . . which I rather like. Coward's play simply fizzled at the end, while the ending of this film by Stephan Elliott ("The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert") is full of the same zestful irony and tongue-in-cheek humor that drives the rest of the narrative.
It's a clash of styles and wills that forms the basis of "Easy Virtue," which gets its title from a line directed at Larita by her new mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas): "We do not need anymore reminders of your easy virtue." That clash is emphasized by point-of-view filming that dramatizes Larita's first impressions of the Whittaker mansion and all its inhabitants--from the rich and indolent family members to the sardonic servants. Random, odd-angle shots of taxidermy mounts further emphasize the bizarre situation in which she finds herself, surrounded by blue-bloods who are just as stiff and dead on the inside, by her blue-collar Detroit standards.
The family learns more about Larita and she learns more about them, but the focus is on that battle between Larita and Mrs. Whittaker--or "wit taker." For the sake of propriety this family will sap the life out of any creature, as evidenced by the former rascal and playboy father of the clan (Colin Firth), who's reduced to showing his disdain for the family pretensions by dressing slovenly and offering asides ("Apparently I'm of the romantic Lost Generation"), as if he were a Greek chorus of one. The exception is Mrs. Whittaker's pampered pooch, a Chihuahua named "Poppy" whom the matriarch indulges, daughters tolerate, and servants and Mr. Whittaker clearly disdain. The cover art is somewhat misleading, though, insomuch as we never see a scene in which Poppy dresses like a flapper with a feathered headdress. And that sets up a shocker within the narrative not unlike the misadventures that befall poor Ben Stiller's character in "Meet the Parents" with the cat "Mr. Jinks."
With a Twenties soundtrack and fluid movement, "Easy Virtue" is a dry and breezy comedy of manners that jolts us with unexpected scenes every time we settle into the kind of complacency that films like this normally produce. But in the meantime, there are little, subtle things to delight: like the facial expressions and body language of the servants, or the point-of-view look we get of this family that places us right in the middle of things. Even the expected--as when Larita joins the foxhunt on a motorcycle and rips right through the hounds and horses--still tickles the funnybone. And that's good, because it's really a familiar premise: the wandering playboy son returns with a surprise bride, and the family's barely concealed shock gives way to various other emotions throughout the course of their brief stay. But the plot is really little more than a vehicle for character in this Coward tale of culture clash. Kimberley Nixon and Katherine Parkinson do a fine job as Johnny's sisters, Hilda and Marion, but it's really a story about what happens when Detroit meets Nottinghamshire (where the Whittaker estate was filmed). That's what makes "Easy Virtue" a keeper, and the kind of film that bears rewatching. I was ready to watch it again the next day, the film charmed me so thoroughly. Even the language ("a bauble of a woman") can delight--though one anachronism ("Cougar") startles.
It was a film ripe to be made, since Coward's play had previously only been brought to screen as a silent movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928. And frankly, I can't imagine a film like this working as well if the audience has to read dialogue and try to capture the looks and body language at the same time.
"Easy Virtue" is rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief partial nudity (the family catches the young marrieds making love in the oddest of places) and "smoking throughout."
"Easy Virtue" looks fine in 1080p, with a slightly soft look totally compatible with the period. Colors are bright and vivid, characters and objects show strong delineation, and there's a nice level of detail throughout. Flesh tones are natural--and they range from the very pale to ruddy--and black levels are sufficient to protect detail in shadows. There was a little more atmospheric grain in shots with pale sky, but other than that it's a picture that's consistently pleasant to watch-the softness adding a sense of age and period.
Sony offers a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack in English, German, or Portuguese, with an additional audio option in Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1. As with the visuals, the audio helps sustain our illusion of the 1920s, with the background music (songs like "Let's Misbehave") not scrubbed of their age spots . . . and crackles or static. But the dialogue is clear and crisp, with just enough spread across the front speakers to keep the sound from hanging on the speakers like morning fog. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, German, Portuguese, Spanish, or Turkish.
Director Stephan Elliot is joined by his co-writer Sheridan Jobbins for a full-length commentary that's both informative and engaging. These two have a sense of humor, but they are also obviously no-nonsense when it comes to production. The usual bases are covered (play to script, script to production, casting, post-production) in a better-than-average track.
That's the main bonus feature. Otherwise it's just a sneak peek at the film's New York Premiere in a featurette, with deleted scenes and a blooper reel. "Easy Virtue" is also BD-Live enabled, "allowing users to get connected and go beyond the disc via an Internet-connected Blu-ray player. Download exclusive content, register for rewards, give feedback through our survey and more!" If you're into that sort of thing.
"Easy Virtue" makes subtle comedy look easy. The ensemble is brilliant, and Noel Coward's play-brought-to-film is just good enough to make us appreciate the "misbehavin'."