Written relatively early in the play-wright’s career, when he was just 25, Noël Coward’s Easy Virtue isn’t the cavalcade of bons mots one generally associates with this celebrated wit. Indeed, the basic story is so thoroughly melodramatic that Alfred Hitchcock adapted it as a silent film in 1928, using virtually none of Coward’s dialogue even in the intertitles. But that hasn’t stopped energetic Australian hack Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) from turning this second adaptation into a frothy, madcap romp, replete with unfunny slapstick and jazz-age renditions of such musical anachronisms as “Car Wash” and “Sex Bomb.”
Still, Elliott does accomplish something I would have thought nearly impossible: He gets a tolerable performance from Jessica Biel. She plays Larita, an American race-car driver and divorcée who’s just married into a highly starched English family and must do brittle battle with her new mother-in-law (Thomas) and other snooty relations. Only the cynical, world-weary patriarch (Firth) truly appreciates Larita’s thoroughly modern ways. When the family discovers a scandalous secret involving Larita’s first marriage, things come to a head, though you’d think the newly invented scene in which she accidentally kills the family chihuahua by sitting on it would have achieved that goal much earlier.
That sub-Farrelly gag is representative of Elliott’s naked desperation to make Coward’s work “relevant” to a contemporary audience. (The nadir is a show-offy shot in which a pool ball rolls toward the lens to reveal a distorted reflection of Thomas’ triumphant face.) Still, the generally fine cast holds your attention amidst the strenuous silliness. Kris Marshall (Love Actually) puts a refreshingly youthful spin on the stock character of the acidly amused butler, and Firth makes an agreeably rumpled ally, though he’s more or less abandoned the role as conceived by Coward and chosen instead to play Knightley from Jane Austen’s Emma. Even Biel acquits herself reasonably well, if only by acting in an entirely different register than everyone else; her declamatory forthrightness makes Larita the ultimate interloper. Pity they’re all in a movie that hasn’t updated its source material—merely cheapened it