Friday, June 12, 2009

Easy Virtue

I may have to pick the soundtrack for this one - it's not amazing, but it's a lot of fun, and going roaring twenties with songs from later ages is one of the crazy ideas that the filmmakers have that can be said to work more often than not.

Easy Virtue

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 June 2009 at Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run)

On the one hand, Easy Virtue is exactly what previews suggest it to be - a movie where a modern young woman (Jessica Biel) clashes with the staid establishment from which her husband hails, personified by her new mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas). There's other plotty business in there, but the culture and family clash is the film's bread and butter, and it handles them well enough to get by on formula, if it didn't have other tricks up its sleeves.

Those "other tricks" start with Kristin Scott Thomas. We know where her Veronica Whittcker fits into the scheme of things from the first scene where she appears, and we're ready to sort of lament that she's in this sort of role, that it's a good thing she speaks French so well, because all the English-language world has for women of a certain age is monsters-in-law. As soon as we see her with Veronica's son John, though, we realize she's up to something different: Her Veronica, at least, isn't ridiculous in any way. She's conservative, certainly, and maybe a little too attached to traditions that were becoming impractical, but she's an intelligent, capable woman who loves her son but not to the point of smothering him or believing he's above Biel's Larita for knee-jerk class-system reasons. Many lesser actresses might have made Veronica into a simple villain, but Scott Thomas makes her into one we could agree to disagree with.

Or, at least, she pulls it off; she's likely not inserting anything into the film wholesale that wasn't in Noel Coward's play, Stephan Elliott's direction, or the script by Elliot and Sheridan Jobbins. There's plenty that can be done with the story; Alfred Hitchcock famously made it into a thriller eighty years ago, and Elliott does a nice job of combining the culture-clash comedy with weightier bits. There's also something charming about how relentlessly they refuse to modernize the action: Larita unironically defies Veronica by smoking, despite the fact that someone dying of cancer is a plot point, and though the Whittakers' financial difficulties play a role, it's very specific to them, rather than the times changing.

(Some of the other ways Elliott uses the film's period setting are just odd. There's a bit that doesn't recur quite often enough to be a running gag that essentially amounts to name-dropping 1920s celebrities that demonstrates how pop culture references without a punchline aren't funny once removed from context, but it doesn't feel like satire. Then there's the anachronistic songs arranged as if they were written in the roaring twenties, which actually makes for fun ending credits, but other selections - like "Sex Bomb" - don't quite work.)

Kristin Scott Thomas is not the only impressive member of the supporting cast. Colin Firth and Ben Barnes are quite enjoyable as father and son Jim and John Whittaker, both of whom are mostly likable, coming up with unique takes on the man paired with a woman who makes a stronger impression than him. Kris Marshall does a great job of stealing scenes as the butler, especially since he's not introduced as a funny butler. Charlotte Riley does well in the thankless role of John's girl-next-door, and Kimberly Nixon is quite good as sister Hilda.

And then there's Jessica Biel, who has moments when she's terrific, like when she first sees that John's family lives in a castle-like mansion, and stretches where she seems to be horribly miscast. She plays off Scott Thomas, Barnes, and (especially) Firth very well, but she also seems to be the common denominator in the sequences that just don't work. Or at least don't work as well as they should - there are moments when Larita should break our heart, and we just feel sort of bad for her. She's also much funnier in a group than on her own.

Granted, many of the parts that fall flat seem like they have no business working - the can-can scene, for instance, is just painfully drawn out for a joke that is not only obvious, but is also obviously not going to be allowed to pay off. It's got to happen, and on a certain level I appreciate the filmmakers making an effort to go for big laughs, when it fails, it falls terribly flat.

Easy Virtue isn't a bad movie - on balance, I think it works more often than not. But in some ways, that's even worse - all the parts that are so well-done just seem to highlight the questionable decisions made by the same people.

Also at HBS.

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