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Easy Virtue
Genre Comedy
Year: 2008

Easy Virtue is a Noel Coward adaptation by Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) starring Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes and Colin Firth. The stage play gets a Hollywood makeover with a sprawling on-location English countryside backdrop, while the stiff upper lip gets the finger-flip to make that “brrr-brrr” sound as Jessica Biel rips up the rolling hills with her motor car as Larita. She’s a strong, free-spirited and dangerous character comparable with Dharma from Dharma & Greg. She begins an uphill battle when introduced to her in-laws, the Whittakers, who are determined to rein their wayward prodigal son in with the allure of the homely country estate.

The fish-out-of-water comedy usually happens when an “Englishman” finds himself in New York. This is a switcheroo similar to the atmosphere in Global Heresy, that movie with Peter O’Toole and Alicia Silverstone.  It’s set in the roaring ‘20s and while Biel seems miscast at first, she eases into the role better than Scarlett Johannson could have done it with her fair looks, hardened heart and cougar profile.

Coward’s play is a send up of stuffy British social norms and its witty script bristles with innuendo and inside jokes with the best of British and American humour. The underhanded political muscling in the social ranks of the family is pitch-perfect and hilarious as Biel tries to fit in against the domineering matriarchal spirit of her mother-in-law, Mrs. Whittaker.

There’s even a fair share of slapstick and dark comedy thrown into the mix to keep pace. The movie makes an excellent balance between traditional English manner and the crass, modern, rule-breaking disposition of the archetypal “American”. The music echoes this notion with updated big band numbers including a rendition of Tom Jones’s Sex Bomb to herald the big hunt.

It’s a fun ride and tears a gaping hole in the classic period piece. The backdrop may remind you of a Jane Austen adaptation, but the upbeat tempo, cheeky sense of humour and clash between ice queen mother and daughter-in-law is entertaining and anything but stuffy. The performances are solid from the core cast with an understated turn from Kris Marshall, “Nick” from My Family. Scott Thomas masters the controlling mother figure come ice queen, Firth embodies a sobering counterbalance to the flippant tone, Ben Barnes makes a convincing and impressionable young man and Biel gives one of her best performances yet.

The story does move from frivolous comedy and cheeky interplay to more serious, darker tones in the last third, which breaks with the tone of the film. The change in tempo is a comedown, which sets the piece back down in reality and makes the lightweight agenda more pressing and even depressing… although English comedian, John Cleese, would say that tragedy is an important part of comedy. All in all, Easy Virtue makes a sharp and enjoyable change of pace from the traditional English family estate period drama.

The bottom line: Witty.

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