Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Easy Virtue"

The new comedy Easy Virtue opens on an English country estate in the 1920s, a repressive, pastoral setting presided over by Kristin Scott Thomas as an icy matriarch with a burnt-out war veteran husband (Colin Firth) and a pair of marriageable daughters (Kimberley Nixon and Katherine Parkinson). This creaky idyll is about to be temporarily busted open by the appearance of the prodigal son (Ben Barnes) and his new bride, a American race car driver and widow played by Jessica Biel. The movie is the first in quite a while to be based on a play but Noel Coward, a dedicated entertainer who, in the name of meeting the great mass audience halfway, was willing to work in movies, even co-directing (with David Lean) In Which We Serve, the wartime stiff-upper-lip film that he starred in, wrote, and directed. But he didn't appreciate seeing the theater pieces that he thought of as his real works fiddled with and dumbed down for movie audiences, and after Hollywood turned his operetta Bitter Sweet into a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald vehicle, he vowed to never have anything more to do with the place.

Easy Virtue, which was directed by Stephan Elliott, from a script (by Elliott and his usual writing partner, Sheridan Jobbins), that is carefully calibrated to bring the original material into line with an eight-year-old's idea of the mature Coward's style of debonair, fashionable entertainment, is a sterling testament to the old boy's good judgment. I had started wincing at the strained broadness and the sound of feet not quite hitting the marks intended early on, but I didn't realize just how low Elliott was prepared to sink until the doodling period-jazz score began to sound eerily familiar. It took me a second to recognize the theme from Car Wash in a quaint jazz-band arrangement. That wasn't the really shocking part; that came a few seconds later, when the faint sound of a vocalist appeared on the soundtrack, crooning about how you might not get rich but that, unlike sitting through this movie, it was still more pleasurable than digging a ditch. In other words, not only does this movie include a '20s-style version of the Car Wash theme, but the filmmakers kind if want you to notice that. They're not ashamed of it.

Elliott, the Australian director best known for the drag spree The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, fills Easy Virtue out with this kind of silly shtick, which serves to advertise his presumed superiority to the material even as it exposes his low opinion of his audience. It's a movie made by people who are drawn to period material because they think the past is just the ginchiest. The sets don't look lived in, and the costumes don't look as if they've been off the rack for more than a minute; if they did, it would interfere with the museum-quality atmosphere. Except that, in keeping with Elliott's taste for in-your-face booga-booga comic effects, it's a museum that doubles as a pop-up book. People make wide-eyed leering faces while reading "scandalous" classics such as Lady Chatterly's Lover, and hand each other newspapers while mentioning that Houdini has died. Kris Marshall plays the family butler, who in the time-honored tradition of drawing room comedies is forever signaling his sardonic awareness of his masters' idiocies. Marshall has aplomb and dexterity, and he might have been very funny if the audience were allowed to notice his impertinence out of the corner of the eye. Elliott lobs him into your lap, so that you get tired of him surprisingly fast.

It's Biel who has the worst time of it, though. Strappingly tall and athletic-looking, with the camera fixated on her pert nose and perfect white choppers, she passes for a member of a superior race, and that's probably the idea: the conquering heroine from America coming to the old mother country to offer the liberating power of her starshine to anyone smart and loose enough to want to accept it, which turns out to mostly be the hired help. (The aristocrats, especially the womenfolk, just feel threatened by her.) Biel isn't dislikable--though her blonde bob makes her seem less warm and friendly than her usual long brunette tresses--but she isn't funny and she never seems relaxed. This kind of material should be a vacation for accomplished performers to breeze through, looking glamorously turned-out while making their witty lines sing; that's how Scott Thomas and Firth play it. (Firth walks off with the movie, because he has the luck to play a character whose wartime experience has left him alienated from the soft, trivial social world around him, which gives Firth the excuse to look as if he's loftily above the bad movie everyone else is sunk in.) Biel looks like she's working hard, and she has no idea how to give shape and music to her lines; she just rattles them off, while looking relieved that she'd managed to remembered them.

And Elliott, while focusing on making sure that she always looks great, still manages to fail to protect her. When the harpies around Biel sneer at her for her composed reaction to a piece of gossip about the death of her first husband, Biel huffs through a puff of cigarette smoke that she isn't about to indulge in "amateur theatrics" just to impress them. When your leading lady is giving a sophisticated-modern-woman performance that looks as if it belongs in a high school play, maybe you should just cut the line about how she doesn't go in for amateur theatrics. Easy Virtue was filmed before, by Alfred Hitchcock, as a silent movie, and a number of people have used this new version as an excuse to marvel at how wrong-headed it was to turn such a dialogue-heavy play into a silent movie. But after hearing the lines spoken by someone who doesn't know how to say them effectively, stone silence and some title cards would come as a relief.

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