Sunday, November 29, 2009

Easy Virtue

Easy laughs can be had from conflicting morals between stuffy traditionalists and trendy progressives.  Stuffiness is easy to caricature, but loose morals have their consequences as well.  Easy Virtue finds the matriarch of the Whittaker family awaiting the arrival of her son from his wanderings.  To her dismay, he arrives with his new wife, an American race car driver.  Chaos ensues.

Easy Virtue, based on the play by Noel Coward, captures the British upper class in the era between the wars.  John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), male heir to the Whittaker estate, finds himself caught between his duties as keeper of the traditions and status of the family, and his desire to embrace the looser morals and values of the era.  Larita (Jessica Biel), his bride, does try to put on her best face for the in-laws, but it quickly becomes clear that she does not fit with the proper, traditional, upper-class British ways.  Even though John is madly in love with Larita, and initially talks about moving with her to London to get out from under the pressure of the family estate, over time he finds himself torn between his duty to family and his duty to his bride.

There are lots of good performances in Easy Virtue.  Colin Firth is perfect as Mr. Whittaker, who, as it turns out, is going through struggles of his own over whether to remain committed to the Whittaker estate.  And Furber (Kris Marshall), the butler, provides some oh-so-proper comic relief as he quietly aids and abets Larita's rebellion.

Not to take away from the acting or plot, one of the most entertaining elements of Easy Virtue was the soundtrack.  It includes some standards of the swing era by Cole Porter, some songs written by Noel Coward, and, in an amusing twist, some more recent songs performed in a swing style, such as "Car Wash," "When the Going Gets Tough the Tough Get Going," and "Sex Bomb."  This video, clips from the movie, plays the latter, and gives good taste of the style and tone of both the movie and the soundtrack.

The traditionalist in me wishes Easy Virtue would have spent at least a little time on the consequences of a morally loose lifestyle.  Larita's choices have already brought her a certain degree of legal trouble and internal strife.  The film leaves the impression that the honorable and reasonable people follow their wanderlust and shirk responsibility, while those who hold down tradition are suckers.  This is certainly not the first place where such a point is made, but whenever it is, I find myself wishing for some middle ground or celebration of those who keep to tradition.  Maybe Noel Coward is the anti-Frank Capra.  And maybe there is a place for both.

Easy Virtue, billed as a comedy, certainly induces lots of laughs, but, like any good comedy, has some thoughtful elements, social commentary, and historical context to add more richness.  Despite its morally and culturally ambiguous message, I enjoyed it, and recommend it.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

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