Presumably the first Nol Coward adaptation to prominently feature a Billy Ocean song during the closing credits, director Stephan Elliots exasperatingly antic staging of Cowards 1924 play Easy Virtue feels like being elbowed in the ribs for two hours by an insecure comedian who wants to make sure you absolutely, positively understand how funny everything is. Elliott seems to have discovered the cinematic equivalent of asking, Get it?, then repeating the punch line two seconds after you tell a joke.

Cowards icy, elegant prose hardly needs such goosing, but then again, this isnt an elegant film. For starters, Jessica Biel is in it. Hopelessly miscast as a sophisticated lady race-car driver, shes supposed to be a worldly American with a scandalous past, shocking the snooty English countryside when she shows up for a family visit as the surprise new bride of Ben Barnes chinless Mamas boy.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays the disapproving mother, spitting her barbed dialogue with brittle precision. Shes reunited with her unhappy English Patient hubby Colin Firth, languishing here beneath a 5 oclock shadow and a tragic World War I backstory thats a bit too heavy for such a featherweight tale. Adding to the cacophony of bad vibes are two spinster sisters (Katherine Parkinson and Kimberley Nixon), shrill harpies whose hypocrisy knows no bounds.

What follows is basically an insult-a-thon feeding frenzy stretched over a season of idle rich activities, as the frigid, uptight women of the Whittaker family attempt to verbally destroy their new American relative. Its tough to feel any sympathy for Barnes, and not just because he has no screen presence. The shmuck has all but tossed his hot bride to the wolves, and no matter what skeletons shes got lurking in her closet, nobody deserves to be pecked to death by bon mots.

Coward wrote the play when he was only 25, and its not typically confused with one of his best. What weve got here is a drawing room melodrama with a pretty simple twist, as the most outwardly respectable and harshly judgmental of these characters are exposed as phonies, while folks considered to be of easy virtue, like Biels Larita, turn out to be more trustworthy and loyal than their sullied reputations might suggest.

Stephan Elliott made a big splash 15 years ago with his drag comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert , but he hasnt helmed a film since 1999s nonsensical Ashley Judd thriller Eye of the Beholder . Perhaps attempting to make up for lost time, he overdirects the living shit out of Easy Virtue , stepping all over Cowards one-liners, piling on pratfalls and constantly cutting to kooky close-ups. Theres not a point made here that isnt underlined in red, twice. After an hour, I wished the movie would just leave me alone.

But most egregious is the musical score. Composer Stephen Endelman launches an auditory assault of jaunty jazz cues with some spectacularly misguided anachronisms and inappropriate cover songs tossed in to further distract from anything you might be enjoying on-screen. I have no way of knowing whose idea it was to set a tractor ride to a Dixieland version of Car Wash, but surely somebody sensible could have intervened.

Colin Firth escapes with his dignity intact. Thanks mostly to his characters habit of sitting on the sidelines looking miserable, he begins to feel like an audience surrogate. To her credit, Biel tries awfully hard to wrap her lack of affect around Cowards tart zingers, but aside from chain smoking, she doesnt seem to have a handle on the period. She also lacks the gravity to convey Laritas wealth of life experience. Stunning as Biel may be in flapper fashions, she still comes off like a kid playing dress-up.

Easy Virtue was made into a movie once before, as a silent picture back in 1928, directed by some up-and-comer named Alfred Hitchcock. This version could have used some silence.

Grade: D+

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 93 minutes

Nol Cowards quote that could apply to this adaptation: Wit ought to be a glorious treat like caviar; never spread it about like marmalade.


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