The director of the bubbly Priscilla, Queen of the Desert tackles the bubbly playwright Noel Coward for Easy Virtue, a loose but spirited adaptation of Coward's scandalous Jazz Age romp. All that bubbling means that some of the froth floats off this confection. But it's still a winning, witty fox trot through the Roaring 20s, when men were men, women were liberating themselves and the "to the manner born" were losing their grip on their manners -- and manors.
The Whittakers are English landed gentry saddled with a World War I vet patriarch ( Colin Firth) who came back from the war "lost," a micro-managing matriarch ( Kristin Scott Thomas) who hasn't married off her not-quite-spinsters daughters and who has no control over her playboy son (Ben Barnes, aka Prince Caspian).
But Johnny's latest stunt takes everyone's breath away. He's run off and married a pants-wearing flapper...a smoker...a race car driver...a peroxide blonde...an American!
The newlyweds arrive on the family estate and the battle is joined. No way Mother is tolerating "this bauble of a woman." And the "bauble" ( Jessica Biel) knows her image problems. She is "the harlot stealing into the nursery" and "a gold digger burrowing in from the land of opportunists." What's worse, she has a reputation as a woman of "easy virtue."
Johnny doesn't care. He's smitten. He keeps crooning "Let's Misbehave" to his love.
The open warfare between the women -- with the self-assured Biel holding her own with the always-flinty Thomas -- is the fun of Easy Virtue. Coward's droll wit makes most every line quotable. Oddly, the filmmakers pepper the soundtrack not only with hits of the day, but with jazz singer versions of songs such as "When the Going Gets Tough (The Tough Get Going)." Wacky.
Alas, the froth only lasts through the first two acts. Director Stephen Elliott and his co-adapter Sheridan Jobbins match Coward's zingers with a few of their own, yet cannot maintain the lightness when third act "revelations" take the movie (as they do the play) into darker places.
Still, the wit carries us and it's great seeing Biel show the Brits that no, Keira isn't the only Twitter Age hottie who can hold her own in a period piece -- with ease.