Pretentious, acerbic English wit Noel Coward has always been known as a diva of sorts - the first pop star if you will - so the quite frivolous air of Stephan Elliott's cover version of the playwright's Easy Virtue should come as no surprise indeed. Playing as some sort of strange melange of sit-com, music video and heady satire of the rich, Elliott's film, though a bit too obvious and fluffy at times (too many problems are left unresolved or resolved without explanation) is wracked with fun, flippant frivolity. And at the heart of all this biting burlesque are a trio of performances that run the spectrum from hilariously vitriolic to delightfully unexpected to surprisingly endearing.
First up is Jessica Biel as Larita, an American racecar driver and adventuress who is running from a shady past into the arms of a well-to-do young Brit named John Whitaker. Their quickie surprise marriage is sure to upset John's upper-crust stuffy family and therein lies the premise of the parody. Biel, who is best known for her ten seasons on 7th Heaven and being the sexy chick who gives Leatherface a run for his chainsaw-wielding money in the slasher remake, gives a most unexpectedly wry turn as the crass American invading the staunchy Brit family. Who would've ever guessed she was more than just a pair of lips and a hot ass.
Larita's nemesis, as is to be expected in such a story, is her over-bearing, dictatorial, supercilious new mother-in-law-from-hell, played with the most sardonic of aplomb by the always wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas. Thomas does cynical bitch-from-hell so well she could leave everything else behind and make a living out of just playing thus. Her despotic matriarch, destined to come out the winner in the power-play between domineering mother and freewheeling new bride, never waivers in her blatant disregard and constant contempt for the (ugh!) American and all she stands for. Biel may be a surprise here but even so she is still no match (in character or actor) for Scott Thomas and her queen of the court.
The real stand-out here though is Colin Firth as the screwed-up, war-raged, despondent father of the groom and would-be disenchanted king of the manse. A frittering, sometimes doddering man of jaded leisure who wears his war wounds and psychological scars for all to see and feel either pity or disdain for, Firth's father-in-law is, save for the prerequisitly droll butler, is Larita's only real ally amongst this house of ill-welcome. Never a big fan of Firth's acting prowess - more indifference than any real criticism - he is at his most charming, his most endearing in this quite sympathetic role.
Granted, Elliott is far from a great filmmaker - Priscilla, Queen of the Desert being the only other worthwhile film of note in his short and unspectacular oeuvre - and he drones on here with unresolved, dangling participles, but the three stars of the film pull the proverbial fat out of the proverbial fire enough to allow us to enjoy the sarcastic barbs and jabs throughout Coward's quite biting play. Elliott's bizarro musical choices, blending Coward Cole Porter numbers with strange jazzy remixes (partially sung by the cast) of such modern pop songs as Car Wash, Sex Bomb and When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going, also lend a fun bubble of the aforementioned frivolity to the proceedings. It is all enough to make Easy Virtue much more enjoyable than it probably would have been otherwise. [09/01/09]