What is it about prim British comedies of manners that makes them such a draw for directors on the mend? Maybe it’s the lure of smoke-filled rooms, elegant costumes and casually witty dialogue, reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood that they first fell in love with. It could be the stage-like settings, an archetypal sensory recall for auteurs born of the theater. Maybe it’s the women.
Whatever the reason, we’ve seen it in recent years from Peter Bogdanovich, a legend of American New Wave cinema who famously fell from grace for his meandering heart when he dipped his toes into the directorial waters after nearly a decade’s absence with The Cat’s Meow in 2001. He hasn’t done another picture since.
And now it’s Stephan Elliott’s turn to ease back into things. Elliott stunned with 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, then suffered a skiing accident that broke his back, legs and pelvis.
Easy Virtue, adapted from a Noel Coward play, finds an Elliott more timid in virtuosity but in good spirits. The film concerns a family in post–World War I Britain that’s been torn to shreds – financially and emotionally – by the changing times. Kristin Scott Thomas is the de facto matriarch trying to hold everything together after her traumatized husband (Colin Firth) retreats within himself. Thomas is banking on her prodigal son, played by Ben Barnes, to return the family to its former glory. But there’s a snag: Her son has fallen for an American girl of new money who also happens to race cars for a living, a fact that sits just fine with her new hubby until the crushing enormity of his mother’s disapproval and the remembrance of his former hometown sweetheart shames him into a flickering regret. A timeless clash of cultures is set up, but quickly falls limp before devolving into embarrassment.
Part of the problem here is that the source material, pedigreed as it is, is on the slight side, too reliant upon disapproving glances and class faux pas. Elliott’s embellishments (he co-wrote the script) are base and silly – the American, Larita, sits on her mother-in-law’s yapping dog, crushing it to death, then tries to cover it up – and Thomas’ passive-aggressive shots at Larita have been seen so often before that they play as a greatest-hits package of familial discomfort.
But the biggest deficit in the film is the actress playing Larita, former 7th Heaven star Jessica Biel, whose clomping, smugly false grasp of Coward’s diction is not only cringe-inducing next to the accomplished Firth and Thomas, but would likely have her banned from the grounds of any summer stock company worth its salt. Not once is there a sense that she understands a word of what she’s saying, but that doesn’t stop her pursed lips from making up for it with a holier-than-thou ’tude. Granted, an aspect of her character is that she’s trying too hard, but even when her Larita lets go of the pretense and allows herself to be natural, Biel still appears uncomfortable. She would do well to get more experience under her belt before reaching for a corset. If she caught any break, it’s that Easy Virtue only pretends to be upscale cinema.