Easy Virtue (PG-13) **

 

Biel's a fish out of water in this Roaring '20s comedy.

 Easy Virtue
In this image released by Sony Pictures Classics, Jessica Biel, right, and Ben Barnes are shown in a scene from, "Easy Virtue."
 

By Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

Because it's based on a Noel Coward play, Easy Virtue would seem surefire entertainment for those who like their comedies laced with ironic humor, snappy zingers, and arch commentary on human pretension.

But the film -- about a notorious American who marries the scion of the English gentry and scandalizes his parents in post-World War I Britain -- is anything but light on its feet. It lumbers instead of dazzles, drags where it should feint and jab. Part of this misfire is surely the fault of director Stephan Elliott, who co-wrote the script and strains far too hard to convey the essence of Coward's limber, biting wit -- even going so far as to throw in a Roaring '20s version of Rose Royce's Car Wash. Really. We can't just stick to Let's Misbehave?

The larger issue, however, is Jessica Biel, lovely but more suited to network TV than period comedies. Biel plays Larita, a race-car driver who falls for and marries gadabout John (Ben Barnes), the son of a family going quietly to seed in the country. When he brings her home to meet the parents (Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas), the manure hits the fan. Larita makes an instant enemy of the frosty matriarch, though Dad, a shaggy war vet who has been beaten down by his harpy of a wife, clearly enjoys all the fuss.

Old pros Firth and Thomas know what to do with this material, particularly Firth, who not only tosses out his dry lines with fabulous ennui but also proves that, in terms of attractiveness, a rumpled, scraggly, wrecked middle-aged man can edge out a younger, soulless pretty boy any day. Biel, however, has no feel for the language or sardonic nature of the enterprise. She's better suited to mindless junk such as the Nicolas Cage bomb Next than to struggling with the intricacies of irony.

Cast: Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes.

Director: Stephan Elliott.

Screenwriter: Stephan Elliott, Sheridan Jobbins. Based on a play by Noel Coward.

Producers: Joseph Abrams, James D. Stern, Barnaby Thompson.

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 93 minutes. Sexual content, brief partial nudity, smoking. Playing at: In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.

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