Contemporary uber-babe Jessica Biel steps into the snappy banter of Noel Coward's roaring '20s in "Easy Virtue," and it's an awkward fit.
Simultaneously, director Stephan Elliott tries to make Coward's world more accessible to today's audiences with modern visual flourishes, and those feel uncomfortably forced, as well. The players who play it straight — Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth and Ben Barnes — are the ones who make moments of "Easy Virtue" sparkle as they should.
It's not that Biel lacks the presence or the acting chops; on the contrary, she's proven she's much more than a pretty face (and perfectly toned posterior) in films like the Iraq war drama "Home of the Brave." Here, she seems ill at ease with the satirical comedy of Coward's 1924 play (which Elliott adapted with Sheridan Jobbins) and not just because her character is meant to be a fish out of water.
Biel stars as Larita, a barrier-breaking American race car driver who finds herself smitten with younger Englishman John Whittaker (Barnes) and hastily becomes his bride. Then she has to meet his family at their behemoth of a British country estate.
While John's sisters are fascinated by her beauty, glamour and mystery, his aristocratic mother (Thomas) isn't shy about voicing her disapproval of this woman, whom she deems beneath her darling boy. ("Oh, you're American," Mrs. Whittaker observes dryly the first time Larita opens her mouth.) The fact that Larita is reluctant to join them on hunting excursions is the least of her perceived deficiencies; Coward did have fun skewering the rich.
Larita finds comfort in the friendship she forms with John's father (Firth), a roguishly kindred spirit who will, of course, provide her redemption. (He's played by Firth, what else could he do?) But the tense exchanges between Larita and Mrs. Whittaker are what give the story its spark, and it's in these scenes that Biel seems outmatched by the deliciously icy Thomas.
Elliott, who previously directed the playfully inspired 1994 comedy "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," tries to breathe life into this classic social struggle with repeated glossy reflections of characters in mirrors, sunglasses, even an eight ball on a billiard table. As if those weren't jarringly anachronistic enough, he includes a cringe-inducing period arrangement of the '70s hit "Car Wash." (Elliott also way too frequently employs that favored modern romantic comedy device of cutting away to a cute dog for no apparent reason — in this case, Mrs. Whittaker's yappy chihuahua.)
"Easy Virtue" settles down and finds its way, though, as the gravity of Larita's situation sets in: She's joined a family deeply entrenched in a tradition that she doesn't understand, one where she'll never fit in, with a mother-in-law who'll never accept her. And Biel's performance strengthens as her role turns heavier and less slapsticky, as the secrets of her character's past are revealed. But the road there isn't easy.
"Easy Virtue," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief partial nudity, and smoking throughout. Running time: 93 minutes. Two stars out of four.