Like Mamma Mia! before it, Easy Virtue – Stephan "Priscilla" Elliott’s adaptation of the Noel Coward play – is going to challenge our philosophy at Screenjabber. We are, as we've mentioned previously, a film site not an entertainment site per se. Accordingly, a film like Easy Virtue, which forces the audience to define the difference between the two, is always going to be ripe for debate.
As a piece of entertainment, Easy Virtue is a cheery, chucklesome delight, a 1930’s-set comedy full of delicious bon mots and acerbic wit: exactly what you’d expect from the Coward / Priscilla combo. And as a film? It’s not quite as bad as Mamma Mia (and on the whole it’s slightly more enjoyable) but it pushes it close in places. So, basically, yes, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Coward / Priscilla combo. Seriously, it’s all over the shop, with Elliott unable to decide if he’s making a genuine comedy of manners or a complete pisstake of the genre. And whenever he can’t decide, he just throws another bizarre song on the soundtrack – chiefly made up of 1920s-sounding interpretations of contemporary hits – and cranks the camp dial up to 11. You’ve never seen or heard weird until you’ve watched Jessica Biel kill a dog with her arse or heard Sex Bomb covered as a vintage "classic".
As with the Coward original, Easy Virtue charts the effects of Larita (Biel), a new (god forbid, American) daughter-in-law on the wealthy Whittaker family. While Mr Whittaker (Firth) takes the return of son John (Barnes, damn good in an utterly thankless role) and the arrival of Larita in his sarcastic stride, Mrs Whittaker (Scott Thomas) is not so forgiving. Thus begins a battle of wits between the women. Over the course of their terribly, terribly British battle – all manipulation and sparky dialogue, you know the drill – the truths behind their situations are revealed and we all go off older and wiser. Something like that anyway.
It’s a bold attempt to give Noel Coward’s social satire a modern spin and it’s certainly never dull, from the cut and thrust of the dialogue to the aforementioned music: for the record, Sex Bomb, Car Wash and When The Going Get Tough also get the 1920s treatment. It’s just that the whole thing is, well, a colossal mess, veering mid-scene from class battle to musical slapstick and back again. Elliott’s "everything including the kitchen sink" approach may be entertaining but it clearly doesn’t suit Biel, who’s not what you’d call a natural comedienne and it certainly doesn’t help that she’s up against old hands such as Firth – who steals the film effortlessly with all the best lines – and Scott Thomas who, to her credit, could have phoned her clipped bitchy performance in but hasn’t. There are moments of pathos but you wouldn’t believe the rubbish you have to wade through to get there.
EXTRAS ***½ An audio commentary with director Elliott; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; a gag reel; a photo gallery; and some trailers.