The centuries-old class conflict between English snobs and Yankee upstarts bubbles over about halfway through the jazz-era comedy Easy Virtue. American auto racer Larita Whittaker (Jessica Biel) revs her motor and shows up the swells on horseback during a fox hunt across the English countryside. One of Larita’s admirers exclaims, “There’s something wild about that child that’s so contagious.”
The line might ring a bell, since it hails from Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave.” Easy Virtue promptly plays the song on a phonograph, in case we didn’t catch the reference. Director Stephan Elliott seems besotted with a certain kind of 1920s wit, loosely adapting Easy Virtue from Noel Coward’s play of the same name, and peppering the script with songs from Coward, Porter and their contemporaries. Larita’s new husband, John (Ben Barnes), forever breaks into song, as though the film considered becoming a full-fledged musical without committing to it. Overall, Easy Virtue seems to take its cues from Biel’s performance as an American newlywed who faces a hostile reception from her upper-crust English in-laws. Both Biel and the film try hard and look nice, but you’re always aware of their labor to keep up appearances.
Easy Virtue ingeniously casts Kristin Scott Thomas as John’s controlling, struggling mother and Colin Firth as his wry, disinterested father. Thomas conveys the desperation behind the mother’s imperious hauteur, while Firth’s charismatic raffishness makes him the perfect mouthpiece for Coward’s bon mots. Occasionally, creepy flames reflect in Firth’s dark glasses. The film hints at darker themes involving serving in World War I, but only reluctantly wrestles with the ideas.
If anything, Coward’s original play proved less frothy than Elliott’s film version, which features broad slapstick and establishes the character of Thomas’ lapdog better than her two daughters. Easy Virtue shows some sympathy for a fading aristocracy as it tries to weather hard times, only to end on an unnecessarily sour, ungenerous note that’s difficult to reconcile with the broad humor. It’s understandable why Elliott, like the directors of films such as De-Lovely and Love’s Labour’s Lost before him, would be intoxicated by the jazz era’s graceful elegance and wordplay: They want to do that voodoo that Coward and co. did so well. Easy Virtue makes you appreciate how much work it takes for something to look effortless.