“Ohhh, you’re American,” laments the haughty aristocrat Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) on meeting her son’s plucky auto-racing bride (Jessica Biel) at the start of Easy Virtue, an adaptation of Noel Coward’s social comedy-melodrama last filmed as a silent in 1928 by the nascent Alfred Hitchcock. The audience’s cause for disappointment is that director Stephan Elliott is determined to contemporize a playwright whose rhythms, concerns, and craft are all permanently bonded to the ’20s art of British sophisticated escapism, art being short for “artifice.” The open warfare between Scott Thomas’s crocodile smile and the insouciant posture of Biel’s interloping Larita, a mysteriously widowed Detroit girl given to sabotaging fox hunts and accidentally offing the family Chihuahua, isn’t so much over Larita’s hunky naïf of a husband (Ben Barnes) as Anglo-American tension over just what isn’t done. This now-moot material begs for a musty proscenium and rapid patter at close quarters, but the camera tracks the players through a series of imposing mansion locations, and they try to snap out Coward’s trademark bon mots on scandal (“We try not to speak of it…except in public”) and reputation while only the unshaven, Great War-traumatized patriarch stands with his misbehaving daughter-in-law against the brood of snobs. Will he be the one to rescue her? Is the casting of Colin Firth in the role a big enough clue? Elliott made a fiftysomething Terence Stamp stylishly fierce in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but here he reflects Scott Thomas’s monster-in-law visage in a billiard table’s eight ball to reduce her to the Wicked Queen of Snow White. Busily scored with Jazz Age songs from Coward and Cole Porter, Easy Virtue flattens its creator’s light gifts so gracelessly that it adds period arrangements of “Car Wash” and “Sex Bomb” for cheap shtick, the equivalent of drowning a modest sorbet in Kahlúa.
Score:Cast: Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Ben Barnes, Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson Director: Stephan Elliott Screenwriter: Stephan Elliott, Sheridan Jobbins Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2008 Buy: Video