Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson, Kris Marshall, Christian Brassington, Charlotte Riley, Jim McManus, Pip Torrens, Jeremy Hooton, Joanna Bacon, Maggie Hickey, John Warburton
Written by: Stephan Elliott, Sheridan Jobbins, based on the play by Noel Coward
Directed by: Stephan Elliott
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, brief partial nudity, and smoking throughout
Running Time: 93
Date: 09/08/2008

Easy Virtue (2009)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

American Snooty

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the tradition of some of the recent Oscar Wilde films (An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest) comes this witty Noel Coward update. Australian director Stephan Elliott sets the tale in the 1920s in a country estate, but with certain ill-advised "modern" touches, such as a swing/jazz version of "Car Wash." Wayward son John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) returns to his family home with his new whirlwind bride, sexy racecar driver Larita (Jessica Biel). His mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) takes an instant dislike to her, and his father (Colin Firth) lives in a kind of bored stupor and doesn't seem to care much. The rest of the film is more or less a power play between the manipulative new mother-in-law and the outrageous American; Larita orders a quasi-offensive Picasso-like painting to hang on the hearth, and the mother-in-law makes sure to spread allergy-laden plants in the newlyweds' room. Elliott keeps the mood spirited and breezy, and of course, there are lots of great lines, but those little modern touches suggest a lack of trust in the material. The biggest flaw is Biel herself, cast in the strongest role. There's no doubt that Biel is attractive, but her key feature is her chiseled body, and she seems physically out of step with the era. Otherwise, though she's perfectly capable of delivering her lines, she seems to lack that indefinable depth that would have made the performance great. (Barnes, as her husband, is even less interesting, but so is his role.) None other than Alfred Hitchcock filmed the same play in 1928, but I haven't yet seen that version.

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