May 28, 2009

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Easy Virtue (PG-13)
Colin Firth and Jessica Biel try on a little Noel Coward in Easy Virtue, a little-bit-goes-a-very-long-way comedy of manners set on an English estate in the later part of the era between the wars.

The Whittakers — Mr. (Colin Firth) and Mrs. (Kristin Scott Thomas) — are unhappily married (but in the polite British sense of “unhappy”) and living in a sprawling English country estate with their two unmarried daughters. Mrs. Whittaker eagerly awaits the return of her son John (Ben Barnes), who will, she hopes, marry the daughter from the family at a neighboring estate and live Britishly ever after. But when John comes home he has a surprise — he’s already married to Larita (Biel), an American race car driver with movie star blonde hair, a smoking habit and an utter disinterest in English country life.

Even if you’ve never seen a 1930s movie or read a P.G. Wodehouse novel, you can probably guess the course of things. Mrs. Whittaker doesn’t like Larita but Mr. Whittaker (still in a funk from his service in World War I) does. The neighboring twentysomethings think Larita is exotic and great but John occasionally wonders if her Americanness and her distaste for fox hunting make her a little too exotic.

At various points in the movie we see comic montages set to “Sex Bomb” and “Car Wash,” played with jaunty Cole Porter-ish Charleston aplomb. It’s a little bit clever and a little bit annoying — just like the movie itself. Sure, this kind of highball humor can be cool, cigarette-holder-and-slinky-dress fun but it can also be extremely self-conscious and very “too much” very fast. There’s a fine line between refreshing dash of mint and horrible overpowering herb, and this movie crosses that line a lot with its arched eyebrows and its many entendres.

Surprisingly, none of the “yeesh, enough” moments are caused by Biel. She fits the role of the sassy bombshell just fine and the strange chemistry that the role causes her to have with Firth works as well. Firth, who is simply born to play roles like this, is excellent, as is Thomas, who is a delightful viper.

What pulls you out of all the mannered fun, though, is the way the movie seems to step outside itself so frequently to say “my, but aren’t we clever.” I didn’t hate Easy Virtue for this but I can’t love it either. B-

Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief partial nudity and smoking throughout. Directed by Stephan Elliott and written by Elliot and Sheridan Jobbins (from the play by Noel Coward), Easy Virtue is an hour and 36 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures Classics.