Mrs. Whitaker, the horrific head of a declining upper-class English household in Noel Coward's 1924 play Easy Virtue, snorts that the name of her new daughter-in-law, Larita, the archetypal woman with a past, is "excellent for musical comedy."
The director of the new movie version, Stephan Elliott, who also co-wrote the script with Sheridan Jobbins, has taken that line as his clue for how to pep up Coward's musty period piece. He's made a movie full of audiovisual japery, including a soundtrack laced with Coward and Cole Porter songs and tunes such as "Sex Bomb" and "Car Wash" done in faux-Roaring Twenties style.
The result, alas, is artificial high spirits. With Kristin Scott Thomas as the hidebound Mrs. Whitaker and Jessica Biel as that modern daredevil Larita (who reads Proust and loves cubism), the screen should be set for an exhilarating clash of style and temperament. Scott Thomas knows how to turn a handsome aristocratic profile into a menacing hauteur, and Biel, as she proved in The Illusionist, is one of the few contemporary American actresses who can inhabit period costumes with unfettered confidence and physicality. But the screenplay amps up the contrasts between Larita and Mrs. Whitaker with such deafening obviousness that their battle royal becomes a series of squalid slapstick antics - involving, for example, a crushed Chihuahua and a panty-less cancan.
Nearly all the other characters, including Larita's all-too-boyish husband, John (Ben Barnes), become the theatrical equivalent of collateral damage.
Elliott might have thought it "cinematic" to turn Larita into a celebrity race-car champ from Detroit who abhors the hounding and killing of innocent animals and has novel ideas about how to ride in a fox hunt. But in the playing, it's simply frenetic and goofy. The movie's go-for-broke pratfalls undercut the comic gravity behind Coward's puncturing of a hypocritical world based on inherited wealth and values.
And the film is just as clumsy and laborious in its poignancy. The screenplay soaks Larita's back story in tears. It also transforms the sympathetic Mr. Whitaker (the reliably deft and empathetic Colin Firth) into her Mr. Right: a knight in tarnished armor, quick to join her in a tango or a getaway car.
In 1988, Sheridan Morley noted that Easy Virtue "remains of interest chiefly as Noel's elegant, laconic tribute to a lost world of drawing-room dramas." This gleefully inelegant movie tosses even that mild interest away.
(Sony Pictures Classics) Starring Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes and Kristin Scott Thomas. Directed by Stephan Elliott. Rated PG-13 for sexual situations. Time 97 minutes.