Friday, June 19, 2009

Easy Virtue

When you stop and think about it, it's amazing any movie ever actually gets made. Many films flounder through the maze of casting issues, constant rewrites, shooting problems, and budgetary constraints. A finished film, even an awful one, is something of a miracle. If you don't believe me, check out Lost in La Mancha, which chronicles just how far a film can go off course when the gods are against you.

Easy Virtue isn't a great film. It just didn't navigate those treacherous waters with enough skill. Despite several pieces which work well, and a definite style, it's a deeply flawed film. Much, though certainly not all, of its troubles can be laid at the feet of its young stars.

The film stars Jessica Biel as Laritta, a poor American race-car driver who marries young British aristocrat John (Ben Barnes) for love. What follows is something of a farcical Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (with snobby class warfare replacing racial tension) as John and Laritta travel to England to introduce his family meet his new bride. There are laughs, hidden secrets revealed, family squabbles, hard choices, and a suitable, though predictable, end.

The film was adapted from the Noel Coward play that Alfred Hitchcock adapted to the silent screen in 1928. This version is much more faithful to the original source material, but that doesn't mean it's an improvement.

When the film plays it light and has fun with the situation and the battle of will between John's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her new daughter-in-law, it works well enough. Colin Firth shines as John's father, the only member of the household who is in favor of its newest addition. There are also nice performances from the rest of the household including Kimberly Nixon and Katherine Parkinson as John's sisters, and Kris Marshall steals more than one scene as the butler Furber.

Add to this some beautiful sets, a nice soundtrack, and interesting camera work in recreating the look and feel of the time period and you have the makings of a darn good film. The look and feel is right, and there are plenty of good laughs, so you would think this would be an easy recommendation... Ah, but as I mentioned before, the gods of film can be a fickle bunch.

Where the film struggles are in the more dramatic scenes, and the reason for those troubles can be stated in two words: Jessica Biel. I've never been a big fan of hers, and I have often remarked on her curse for being involved in projects which seemed instantly and forever doomed to mediocrity. Although I think she is a capable actress in small roles or television, she simply lacks the range for something like Easy Virtue. Having failed Hollywood's test to make her a star in big budget (Blade Trinity, Stealth) films I'm not sure the solution was try to showcase her acting ability in a small art film.

All the blame can't be laid at her feet alone. Biel's leading man, though handsome, is also thrown into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim. The film actually comes to a screeching halt during the dreadfully inept dramatic scenes between the pair. I winced as Biel and Barnes attempted to deal with and convey real emotion. She's simply asked to do too much. I'm not sure he's capable of it at all and the film struggles because of it. It doesn't help that the two are asked to hold their own against Firth and Scott Thomas who convey more in a single subtle glance than our leads are able to achieve in the entire length of the film.

Even with all I like about Easy Virtue and how it's put together, I can't quite bring myself to recommend it. Brought down by a pair of performances more suited to late morning soap operas, Easy Virtue probably deserved a little better than it got, but those movie gods can be fickle. If you're still inclined to view the film, you might want to wait a few months and rent it on DVD rather than putting forth the effort to try and hunt it down in art houses and the smallest theaters of your town's biggest multiplex. It's not a bad film, but it had the potential to be something much more.

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