Easy Virtue, a film adaptation of Noel Coward's jazzy 1920s-set play, pits the old traditions of Europe's landowning gentry against the brash modernity that America had come to symbolize. The old guard is represented by a wealthy British family led by the brittle matriarch Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas). When her son, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), marries a sexy race car driver named Larita (Jessica Biel) several years his elder, the entire family is thrown into a tizzy.
Once Biel's character arrives at the Whittaker home she's meant to represent a vibrant and mesmerizing new way of doing things that is utterly offensive to this family so steeped in tradition. But alas, Ms. Biel doesn't quite have what it takes to hold down the center of a film like this and the whole endeavor suffers. To see why,
The cast includes the kind of immensely talented actors who can take on the old-fashioned, quick and witty dialogue with one hand tied behind their backs. Biel tries to keep up and at times she succeeds, but most of the time she simply appears to be swimming upstream. As you might expect, Kristin Scott Thomas deliciously inhabits her icy character with ease and delivers each line as a stinging backhanded compliment. Colin Firth plays her long-suffering husband still hurting from memories of war, and delivers an incredibly funny yet soulful performance. Even Ben Barnes, who is handsome but stiff in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, displays pizzazz as the prodigal son returning home.
As the movie clicks along, though, more and more is asked of Biel as she navigates the cruel and ruthless landmines set out for her by her new mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, and she's not quite able to rise to the occasion. As the tone shifts in the final act from a comedy of manners to a darker drama, the talented ensemble cast does all it can to prop the movie up, but the center can't hold in the end.
Photos courtesy of Sony Picture Classics