Based on Noël Coward's play of the same name, the 2008 film Easy Virtue uneasily pits an American woman against her new British mother-in-law in a battle of the wills. Directed by Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and with a screenplay by Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins, the film is never quite sure whether it is a comedy or a drama and suffers greatly as a result.
In its comedic moments the film, which stars Jessica Biel as an American race car driver, Larita, and Kristin Scott Thomas as her mother-in-law, Veronica Whitaker, is uproariously funny, using both sight gags and clever dialogue. In its more dramatic moments, the proceedings come to a screeching halt and Easy Virtue becomes exceedingly tedious.
The film opens on a lighter note, with introduction of Larita to the audience followed quickly by a move to England, where Mrs. Whitaker and her husband (the always enjoyable Colin Firth) quickly learn of Larita marrying their son, John (Ben Barnes). Mrs. Whitaker is displeased to say the least – her family has certain appearances to keep up and her boy marrying an American as opposed to marrying one of their well-to-do friends is wholly unacceptable. For his part, Colonel Whitaker is happy for his son provided that his son is happy, but he is the outlier in his family, having spent several years carousing in Europe following World War I and subsequently being emotionally detached from the rest of his family.
The Colonel is also the only family member, save John, who likes Larita. His defending her, however, doesn't mean much as he lacks the respect of his family. He finds in Larita a woman with a similar attitude – someone who finds life and people amusing and who doesn't approve of upper crust British snobbery.
As the film progresses, a battle plays out between Larita and Mrs. Whitaker. John's sisters Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson) tend to find themselves siding with their mother, while the Colonel (as stated above) comes down on the side of Larita. It is poorJohn who finds himself in the middle – torn between the woman he loves and his rather severe mother.
It is the battle – and not John's relation to it – that is at the center of the story. The fight leads to some truly hysterical scenes as the two women, either by accident or on purpose, wreak havoc on one another and the family.
When played for laughs, as it often is, the fight between the two makes the film fly by. The basic problem with the film however, as stated above, is that there are moments where, for no discernible reason, the script and Elliott's direction of it chooses to shift gears and go serious. There are, of course, terribly serious things happening to many of the characters, but the change from comedy to drama and back again is a jarring one. There seems little reason for the tonal shift which lends the impression that Elliott simply either didn't know how to make the dramatic scenes funny or that he didn't know whether he wanted to be making a comedy or a drama and instead opted for both.
One of the main reasons the film simply doesn't work as a drama is that the characters, when portrayed in a serious fashion, tend to be very unlikable. Kristin Scott Thomas' Veronica has reasons for acting the way she does, but the film spends little time with them and gives them little credence, so when she is serious her attitude towards Larita is wholly off-putting. Played for laughs on the other hand, she makes the perfect villain for the piece.
The film does have more than one story taking place — there are a lot of undercurrents — but several of those stories wind up untold or under-developed. John's two sisters both have their own issues in terms of finding suitable partners in marriage, and while the film starts exploring those problems, it never really progresses before the final credits roll. There is certainly more that could have been done with those plots, and the audience is left feeling as though those characters have never truly progressed.
In a film in which the dialogue is terribly important, the TrueHD 5.1 channel soundtrack works well, with the audio track sparkling just as much as the dialogue. When the track is required to do more than produce dialogue (during dances and fox hunts and the like), the track works equally well. The color palette is a toned-down one (the film takes place during the late fall and early winter), so there isn't much in the way of bright colors to astound, but there is a good amount of detail present.
In terms of extras, the film contains a commentary track with Elliott and Jobbins, deleted scenes, and a blooper reel. There is also a short featurette with clips from the New York premiere in which the stars talk about the film. There is nothing much to be gleaned from this last inclusion, and the space could better have been spent with more of an in-depth look at the production. It should also be noted that while the disc this reviewer received contained a link to Sony's BD-Live, attempting to connect only ever resulted in an error message.
Though it is often uneven, Easy Virtue still manages to be a likable film. It does get terribly bogged down at moments, but one still comes away from it feeling as though their time was well spent.