Saturday, June 27, 2009
Vice and Virtue
I wonder if a person doesn't reach a certain age and see all of life repeating itself. It's a truism that there are something like 12 stories in life, the rest being a question of detail.
Stephan Elliott's 2008 film Easy Virtue feels to me like a variation on a familiar theme. A young man from a fading upper crust 1920's British family, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), impetuously marries a brazen American divorcée Larita (Jessica Biel), and the newlyweds return home to the Whittaker estate to find his family mortified at his choice. The rest of the two hours lets us watch these particular dominoes fall. Even when the details are at times unexpected, the general thrust of the story is distinctly familiar.
The one twist to the otherwise age-old two-sides-of-the-tracks storyline is that the upper crust Whittakers are small-minded and provincial while Larita is not only the expected American upstart (being a racing driver and all), but also, rather inexplicably, highly educated and erudite and always ready with a barbed comeback to the slings and arrows from John Whittaker's befuddled family.
So the story's freshness isn't much of a player, and there seems little else in this adaptation of the Noel Coward play for us to latch onto. Well, except for Jessica Biel's performance, which she pulls off pretty heroically given a script that never quite gets us inside anyone's head. I'm actually a little hesitant to credit her in this way, as I suspect I'm willing to overlook a lot just to see Ms. Biel parading her beauty on the screen--she is stunning to look at. But I'm trying to be objective, and I'm not out on a limb much to credit her with breathing some life into her character.
The rest of the cast, however able and expert, gives us little to like, very little opportunity for sympathy. Mr. Whittaker (John's father, played by the dependable Colin Firth) has returned a decade ago from the Great War a changed and disengaged man. The family matriarch (Kristin Scott Thomas, who is easing her middle-aged self into Maggie-Smith-in-waiting territory) is left to oversee the estate as financial difficulties force the family to liquidate for survival. Even beyond the dire circumstances Mrs. Whittaker is difficult in the extreme, a cold and judgmental woman who never misses an opportunity to harp and slash at Larita, or anyone else. Her one talent is to spew acid; everything that comes out of her mouth decimates someone. Her two daughters--John Whittaker's sisters--are similarly disfunctional, and it all makes for a stew of clash and discomfort into which Larita is meant to be the bit of sun and spice. There is wit aplenty from all corners (as one would expect from a Noel Coward story), and for all the unsavory characters at least the script keeps one reasonably entertained.
Apart from the newlyweds who, at the start of the movie can barely keep their hands off each other (and who grow increasingly distant as the story progresses, something that is little explored), the only bit of empathy and understanding in the film is between Larita and John Whittaker's estranged father. His time in the trenches has left him with little taste for pretty much everything that absorbs his wife's and kids' lives. In their rejection of the little arbitrary niceties that Mrs. Whittaker treats as gospel, Larita and Mr. Whittaker are much closer to sharing an outlook than anyone else in the film. And it's almost enough to carry the film, but not quite; this side of the story comes off as almost an afterthought. Likewise, Larita is meant to embody the spirit of the Roaring 20s and the Jazz Age and all, but again this detail comes off as incidental. The film is nice to look at, though perhaps without the attention to detail of, say, the similarly-set Gosford Park.
By the film's end, at which point we figure one of two or three things must happen, it was tough for me to care much which option prevailed, which leads me to conclude that this is a noble effort that misses its mark. For my part, I was happy to keep watching Ms. Biel parade around in varied and expensive frocks, but clearly there are limits to what an actress's commitment to her personal trainer can do to save a film. And this one proves the point.