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Easy Virtue

Noel Coward Gets a Makeover

Above: Ben Barnes and Jessica Biel look smashing as newlyweds in Easy Virtue

According to a statement by director Stephan Elliott, Noel Coward "wrote a daring and original play: handsome young English buck returns to fading country pile married to an older, sassy, divorced American! It's the original Meet the (very posh) Parents—and ground breaking for its time—but 90 years on? Coward is quoted as saying he never wants his work to become museum pieces, and in those few words I found the license to tackle it. We dusted off the cover, and broke out the new paint."

So in adapting Easy Virtue (opened May 29 at Landmark's Hillcrest and La Jolla Village Theaters) to the screen, Elliott changes the scandal from being a divorced American to being a woman involved in a scandalous court case involving the death of her husband. Elliott also throws in some contemporary music done in a kind of 20s style as part of the play's dusting off and modernizing. Elliott went on to say that he was the right man for the job based on Priscilla.

The scrutinizing glare of the matriarch and her two daughter

Sony Pictures classics

Above: The scrutinizing glare of the matriarch and her two daughter

"Look at it this way: the tag line for Priscilla was, 'If aliens landed in your town, what would they wear?' Jessica Biel is my glamorous alien from the future landing in Kristin Scott Thomas' stagnant past—and oh Lordy! What is she wearing?"

The story is still set in the roaring twenties. John (Ben Barnes) a young British aristocrat abruptly marries Larita (Jessica Biel), an American race driver. Mum Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas) is aghast for a variety of reasons while John's father Jim (Colin Firth) exhibits an seeming compassion for the outsider. Adding to Larita's scrutiny are John's two sisters and assorted neighbors. The play was actually adapted to the screen back in 1928 by a very young Alfred Hitchcock. The irony for that film version was that it was silent and it's hard to imagine bringing Coward to life without hearing his lines spoken.

Colin Firth and Jessica Biel shock the locals with a tango

Sony Pictures Classics

Above: Colin Firth and Jessica Biel shock the locals with a tango

But if you are a fan of Noel Coward's you might be straining to hear his crisp deft word play in this latest film adaptation since Elliott does some major rewriting (although sometimes his changes involve drawing on Coward's lyrics for dialogue). Coward was great at skewering stuffy, rich and morally smug people, in this case remnants of the Victorian Age. And one of the best ways he had to expose their hypocrisy was the throw an outsider – often an American -- into the mix. But Elliott, who was so good at social satire in Priscilla, misses the mark here. He delivers a lightweight comedy but one without teeth or venom. For one casting Jessica Biel (who is the same age as Ben Barnes and definitely doesn't look older) removes one key scandalous element from her character's make up since she no longer seems older than her new spouse. Also the film doesn't make those class and cultural differences pop the way they should. The film plays more like a quaint drawing room comedy rather than the politely savage social satire that Coward intended.

Kristen Scott Thomas and Jessica Biel square off in Easy Virtue

Sony Pictures Classics

Above: Kristen Scott Thomas and Jessica Biel square off in Easy Virtue

In something like this timing is everything and Easy Virtue just seems slightly off the mark. The result is a diverting comedy but not one that glistens and zings. I couldn't help but think of Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living adapted from a Coward play and Miriam Hopkins' deliciously free-spirited young American. That film managed to be light yet wickedly critical of stuffy morality. Elliott can't quite pull that off. Biel is appealing but she's no Miriam Hopkins... or Claudette Colbert or Carole Lombard. She does, however, look fabulous in her roaring twenties clothes. Kristin Scott Thomas is severe as the matriarch but she lacks the kind of delicious venom to make this film really crackle. Colin Firth conveys a hint of scathing comic commentary as the somewhat removed and disengaged patriarch.

Easy Virtue (rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief partial nudity, and smoking throughout) is entertaining and boasts lovely production design. It's easy to watch but not very memorable... except possibly for the dog scene.

Companion viewing: Design for Living, Easy Virtue (1928), Meet the Parents

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