The world has been trying very hard to make Jessica Biel into a movie star, and to her credit, Biel has been trying, too, by occasionally setting aside Hollywood projects and showing some range in independent films and period pieces like The Illusionist and the new Easy Virtue. As a free-spirited American racecar driver in the late ’20s, Biel does some of her best work (relatively speaking) in Easy Virtue, but the film also underlines a curious flaw in her voice, which is deep, flat, and affectless. A comedy-killer, basically. Based on the Noël Coward play—previously adapted in 1928, as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s early silents—the film sets Biel toe-to-toe with a calculating blueblood played by Kristin Scott Thomas, but the dry wit with which Biel attempts to deflect her adversary’s one-liners instead bounces limply to the hardwood.
Fresh off a victory in Monaco, where her womanhood ignites media attention, Biel drives off with a trophy in the form of Ben Barnes, an ineffectual British upper-cruster who impulsively asks for her hand in marriage. Barnes’ mother (Thomas) greets the news frostily, and her two Cinderella-stepsister-type daughters (Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson) quickly fall in line behind her. That leaves Thomas’ distant husband Colin Firth, a grizzled cynic still haunted by his nightmarish experience in the Great War, to offer Biel a small measure of support. Because goodness knows, she isn’t getting even that much from Barnes.
Scaling back on the frenetic cartoonishness of his The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and Eye Of The Beholder, Elliott lets the smooth mechanics of Coward’s play drive the comedy along, though it’s never clear why he decided that now is the time to revive it. At this point, Firth and Thomas can pull off these period pieces in their sleep, so it falls upon Biel to give back as good as she gets, and she doesn’t have the chops for it. Having Thomas’ aristocrat on the brink of financial ruin shifts the power dynamic compellingly, and Firth’s soulful reminiscence over the source of his evident pain gives heart to Coward’s petty gamesmanship. But Easy Virtue needs a strong center to justify its celebration of American effrontery, and Biel lacks that prideful edge.