Film Review: 'Virtue' fails to mine humor from English class clash

Kristin Scott Thomas chats with her son's 'floozy' bride, Jessica Biel, in 'Easy Virtue.'

Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures Classics

Kristin Scott Thomas chats with her son's "floozy" bride, Jessica Biel, in "Easy Virtue."

In perhaps the only scene in "Easy Virtue" guaranteed to cause a moviegoer to look at the screen instead of his watch, the silly young daughter of an aristocratic family in 1920s England performs a knickers-free can-can, to the delight and shock of the patrons of the local War Widows' Revue.

Kristin Scott Thomas chats with her son's 'floozy' bride, Jessica Biel, in 'Easy Virtue.'

Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures Classics

Kristin Scott Thomas chats with her son's "floozy" bride, Jessica Biel, in "Easy Virtue."

A young Englishman gets married to an American divorcee on the spur of the moment in the South of France and then must return home ...

Rating: PG-13 for sexsual content, brief partial nudity, and smoking throughout

Length: 93 minutes

Released: May 22, 2009 Limited

Cast: Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Kimberley Nixon

Director: Stephan Elliott

Writer: Noel Coward, Noel Coward

More info and showtimes »

A misbegotten adaptation of a 1925 play by Noel Coward, "Easy Virtue" seems as desperate for attention as young Hildy (Kimberley Nixon). Why else burden the soundtrack with cute retro jazz-band covers of "Car Wash" by Rose Royce (during a tractor-repair scene) and "Sex Bomb" by Tom Jones (during a fox hunt)? Why add a grotesque black comedy interlude in which the ostensible heroine sits on and crushes the beloved family Chihuahua, then conspires with the stiff-upper-lip help to cover up the canicide? Aren't I naughty? director/co-writer Stephan Elliott ("Priscilla, Queen of the Desert") seems to be asking us. Nope, we reply; just gauche.

The aforementioned heroine is a Monte Carlo Grand Prix celebrity race-car driver named Larita (Jessica Biel, clearly relishing her cloche hats and platinum blond hairdo). Larita is the new bride of John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), nicknamed "Panda," who scandalizes his uptight, traditionalist mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and amuses his unshaven, sardonic father (Colin Firth) when he returns to his countryside manor home with this "floozy" from Detroit as his prize.

Larita upsets the ancient household when she introduces her husband's unmarried sisters to cigarettes, Lady Chatterley and Cubism; mother upsets Larita when she insists the American participate in the annual fox hunt. Tradition and progress are at war, but the only creature worth rooting for in this conflict is the Vulpes vulpes; the humans remain unsympathetic, even the ones we're supposed to admire for their spunk or wit.

Elliott directs as if tone deaf to what moves an audience as well as to what makes it laugh. As a result, "Easy Virtue" likely will appeal only to those Anglophiles who swoon at the sound of such words as "codswallop" -- three syllables that provide as succinct a verdict on this project as any.

"Easy Virtue" is playing exclusively at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

-- John Beifuss: 529-2394

© 2009 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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