They make films pandering to children, to single ladies, to foam-mouthed geeks, to miserable art fiends, so why not old folks? The crowd that watched the Noël Coward redux was a veritable sea of bluehairs, the kind of folks that usually comprise 65 percent of a community theatre audience and/or bingo parlor. They tittered merrily during the film, sighing and gasping and oohing and aahing, as if watching a low-key fireworks display. And really, that’s what a Noël Coward piece is: wit drier than a Boozehound martini, lazily fencing Brits dueling with nonchalance and panache, all snugly ascot wrapped about a bland comedy of manners. It’s inoffensive and stodgy, so the old folks eat it up with an oatmeal spoon. Maybe if I was bored with life, clad in diapers, and fondly could reminisce about the time between wars that weren’t fought in an oil-man’s sandbox, I might have enjoyed it. But I wasn’t and I didn’t, and when I pooped myself, it was with indignant outrage.
Easy Virtue doesn’t work in this day and age. It can’t work, and it’s notNoël Coward’s fault. The entire premise is that a young Englishman of the landed gentry returns to the family estate with his new brash American wife in tow. It’s supposed to turn the whole manner comedy on its ear, why it’s lest important to be earnest and more important to stand proud and carefree as a woman. The suffragette sonata doesn’t play so sharp in the jaded ears of modern society, particularly when the major dramatic lynchpin of the film is less scandalous than a particularly babyshaming episode of Maury. In a day where teenagers can be meth-addicted grandparents or terrorist commandos, a little alleged cancerous euthanasia is yawn-inducing. Unless you really like jokes about the difference between Americans and British people. Then this is your cup of tea. (Get it? If you laughed, go see this movie. And then never return to Pajiba again, malingerer.)
I will always adore Stephan Elliott for the unparalleled glory of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Three insane drag queens romping across Australia, sassing the fuck out of each other — it’s pretty hard not to adore that. But he’s totally outclassed by Coward’s material. I’m not intimately familiar with the original play, so I couldn’t say for certain what bastardizations he made to the script, but looks like he played pretty loose and fast with the work. He tries to spruce up the material with the occasional modern slang, and it’s really to the detriment of the film. Coward doesn’t mix well with “Sex in the City”; the anachronism is as jarring as having Hamlet chug a Fresca. It’s more camp that wit when gals in Depression Era swag are referring to “cougars” and “playing with myself.” Elliott tries to mask it with as much period costuming and standard song pieces as he can. They’re foxtrotting to “Let’s Misbehave!” Aren’t we so posh? Tut, tut. Cheerio.
I will not malign Jessica Biel; she’s like ScarJo and the rest of her contemporaries. Her biggest asset is her ass set. In something like Rules of Attraction, she can hold her own. But when put up with a cast of this caliber, it’s like the ghost of the WB staticking through Masterpiece Theatre on a cheap television. Particularly when she’s up against Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth. It’s no contest. I was a slugger on my college intramural softball team, but I’m not going to score any runs in the MLB. (Well, maybe against the Yankees). Biel’s Larita is supposed to be a feisty American racecar champion, a free spirit who matches wits with her frosty mother-in-law Mrs. Whittaker (Thomas). Biel just doesn’t have the gravitas, especially when we’re supposed to be stunned because she’s the — gasp — older woman. (Honey, you’ve already cashed in the tit check, don’t go giving up the ingenue just yet. Coast on them laurels, we can wait.) We’re supposed to root for her against the rest of the brooding clan, but really, you end up more or less pitying her because she’s more out of her element than Donny. Colin Firth is always good, ALWAYS damn you, and he’s smashing as the miserly and sardonic Mr. Whitaker. He’s such a bitter and nasty bastard that he’s the only one having any fun. The two daughters are two morbid ghouls, Hilda the spritely one (Kimberley Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson) who seems to be channeling Moaning Myrtle. Home comes young John (Ben Barnes), a naive boy who spends his time breaking into spontaneous song which isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds. Barnes seems content to dog-taint the carpet of British Literature, starting as Caspian in the Disnification of Narnia, scooching down Noël Coward, and then later assrubbing as the titular Dorian Grey. He’s a perfect foil to Biel, since neither of them belong in this picture. They spend most of the film in a rather uncharismatic relationship, admiring Biel’s bottom in silky dresses.
Larita splonks into the Whittaker estate life like a turd in the punchbowl, ruining everyone’s plans for John, who is inexplicably called Panda. He was supposed to marry the neighbor’s daughter and live boringly ever after in a life of dinner parties and balls. May they all rest uneasily in cobwebs in the bitter shadow of Miss Havisham. It then become a typical clashing of the ladies, who bicker very Britishly, taking catty asides and smoking more cigarettes than the Marlboro Man trying to commit ironic suicide. When the major comic centerpiece is having your heroine repeatedly crush a dog with her backside, you know you’re in trouble. At least we’re treated to the charming Furber (Kris Marshall) but then again, the butlers’ always get the fun parts in parlor comedy.
Easy Virtue will make plenty of money for the same reason community theatres put on Godspell or Our Town. Old people spend their Social Security money on it. It’s comfort food for them. I just don’t see how people can enjoy it because, really, it’s too outdated for a modern crowd, and it’s too modernized for an outdated crowd. It’s not that it’s terribly bad, it’s more of a terribly boring with a few chuckles here and there. Besides, you can’t take your grandma to see Drag Me To Hell, unless you really need the inheritance money.
Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com.