RATING |

Full of forced jocularity and drawing-room hissy fits, with its cast parading around in vintage threads and antique cars, Easy Virtue is a close-to-insufferable souffle based on the 1925 Noel Coward play.

Jessica Biel, with wavy blond locks and a game grin, stars as a glammy American divorcee (and race-car driver) - a free spirit who charms the pants off Englishman John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) when they meet in the south of France.

Meet, and marry.

And then John brings his new bride Larita back to face the family: a snooty matriarch played by Kristin Scott Thomas, the depressed and cynical Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth), and John's sheltered younger sister, Hilda (Kimberley Nixon). Bon mots and bad vibes fly.

The headlines are all about Houdini and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which puts the date at 1929. Larita reads Lady Chatterley's Lover, a prop brought in to illustrate her sensual, adventurous nature.

Director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) pumps up the melodrama - essentially a wry take on English pomposity and moral hypocrisy - with jaunty pop ditties and larky events. There's a fox hunt departing from the Whittaker manse in which hounds and humans go galloping into the woods - with Larita joining them on her motorcycle.

With actors of the heft and humor of Firth and Scott Thomas, there are bound to be good moments, and, indeed, there are a few. But Barnes - Prince Caspian in the Narnia installment - is a lightweight, and Biel, like her character, seems to be mixing with the wrong crowd.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea
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