Meeting one's in-laws for the first time is a nerve-racking ordeal even for those with the most resolute personalities. For the newly wedded Larita Whittaker (Jessica Biel) in EASY VIRTUE, being introduced to her husband John's family presents a firm test of her self-worth and young marriage.
The Whittakers occupy an enormous estate in the countryside of post-World War I England. The lady of the house, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, sees no reason why her son John (Ben Barnes) should want to leave it. Larita and John's whirlwind romance and marriage do not endear her to her new mother-in-law. Neither do her American citizenship, race car driving occupation, and trail of scandal sheet rumors.
Likewise, John's sisters, the ditzy Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and sour Marion (Katherine Parkinson), snip at Larita's heels just as much as the family dog. The only sympathy she finds in the house comes from the hired help and Colin Firth as Larita's father-in-law. Mr. Whittaker isn't on the best of terms with the missus after dallying to return home from his battlefield service, so he appreciates the presence of someone he views as a kindred spirit.
Like her character in EASY VIRTUE, Biel strives to prove her respectability and talent in this film adaptation of Noel Coward's play. Known more for her figure and tabloid-documented love affairs, Biel makes a game attempt at proving acting chops that weren't on view in the action film STEALTH or awards bait war drama HOME OF THE BRAVE. While she plays the proper notes, Biel's performance lacks the zing needed to jolt this comedy of manners.
It's a criticism that also applies to the whole of EASY VIRTUE. Thomas and Firth are old hands in this sort of picture, and they spark a few flickers of flinty humor from slinging witticisms. Overall, though, director Stephan Elliott never lets loose the playful bloodsport of conversation regarding disapproved marriage kinship and societal differences. The waggish freedom Elliott does impart to the material comes primarily through anachronistic Jazz Age-styled covers of songs from the likes of Tom Jones and Billy Ocean on the soundtrack.
The easy virtue of the title refers to the presupposed freeness with which Larita has shared her bed, but it could just as well apply to the snap judgments and dismissive attitudes directed toward her and the elder Mr. Whittaker. After all, casting aspersions is easier than receiving them.
The serious turn that EASY VIRTUE takes at a latter stage doesn't feel of a piece with the preceding sections. If Elliott had made the stings of earlier rebukes felt more keenly, then the threat of shattered relationships and futures would seem of greater consequence. As it stands, EASY VIRTUE too lightly considers the costs of frosty familial dealings and is thus neither wickedly funny enough nor substantial.