Tone Deaf
by Jeff Reichert

Easy Virtue
Dir. Stephan Elliott, U.K., Sony Pictures Classics

In the face of the current world financial crisis, is an urbane adaptation of a mid-20s Noel Coward comedy of manners hopelessly out-of-step, or an appropriate cinematic tonic for troubled times? The collapse of economies is perhaps an unnecessary weight with which to burden a film like Easy Virtue, whose sole aim is providing 90 frothy, mildly entertaining minutes, but lingering around the borders of Stephan Elliott’s (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) take on one of Coward’s earlier plays are increasingly relevant questions of wholesale societal change and the decay of class relations. It’s a concern of the source text that could have been amplified and made more complex via a filmic adaptation with its finger on the pulse. Sadly, Easy Virtue spends more time hitting the most obvious beats (especially Coward’s verbal innuendos) hard, only hinting at the more germane update that might have been.

Calling this Easy Virtue an adaptation would be something of a misnomer. It’s more of a morbid autopsy: Elliott and co-screenwriter Sheridan Jobbins have eviscerated the author’s sensibilities in favor of a broader, streamlined approach which jettisons some of the play’s more intriguing elements, and then grafted on a conclusion that cauterizes the original’s aims. Fresh-faced John Whittaker (the wispy, barely present Ben Barnes of Narnia fame) returns home from a jaunt to Monte Carlo with a new wife—the American Larita (Jessica Biel, reaching for sophistication and stumbling), garish in the critical British eyes of John’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), a race car driver with a spotty past. Mayhem and alleged hilarity ensue as the other members of the family, sisters Marion (Katharine Parkinson) and Hilda (Kimberly Nixon), and dissipated WWI-veteran paterfamilias (a scraggly beard, dark round glasses, and scarf standing in for Colin Firth) meet the bride and line up on varying sides of the love-her/hate-her divide.

Coward’s sensibilities peek through Easy Virtue, but as the film wears on and Larita spars with the highly disapproving and unshakable Ms. Whittaker across a variety of set pieces—a foxhunt, a war widows revue, a Christmas Party—the meddling influence of the filmmakers grows more evident. When cinema tackles the theater, it often fails either in hewing too closely to the original stagecraft and ignoring the techniques that moviemaking affords, or in overcompensating, cutting too much, relying on close-ups and isolating performances in the frame when the source texts require actors together in a space vibrating off one another. It’s tough to find the right mixture, and Easy Virtue‘s flaws most definitely fall in the latter category, even going so far as to include such unnecessary visual trickery as the image of a winking Kristin Scott Thomas leering from the sheen on a billiard ball and other reflections pasted onto shiny mirrors, glasses, and the like. If the play were not blessed with darker undertones, the whole enterprise would devolve into camp.

That said, 90 minutes in the company of generally attractive people prancing around an overstuffed English country home lobbing witticisms at each other may not be the worst fate that could befall one during an early summer trip to the movies. A viewing of Easy Virtue would almost pass unnoticed if its soundtrack weren’t so intent on fighting off the film’s wallpapery vibe. Eschewing the kind of tastefully stringed score that would have allowed Easy Virtue to fade easily into memory, Elliott’s decided instead to pepper his film with a mix of ironic takes on period tracks alternately rendered in full stereophonic “glory” or pumped through tinny gramophone EQs, coupled with a few true atrocities like the big band cover of Billy Ocean’s “When the Going Gets Tough” (sung by the cast no less) that closes the film on a painfully awkward note. In the press notes, Elliott defies “anybody to leave a screening of Easy Virtue without their feet tapping”—consider that accomplished. Even so, your grandparents will probably love it.