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You Flapper, You Bought Her

“Easy Virtue” has beautiful cloche hats and Jessica Biel, but little else.

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Raise your hand if you were dying to see Noel Coward's “Easy Virtue” made into a movie. Maybe they were clamoring for it in 1927 when Alfred Hitchcock directed a silent version, but to watch director Stephan Elliott's remake, it would seem that Jessica Biel, made up in platinum hair, fancy hats and stunning gowns, was all the justification necessary for a flapper-era period piece. But why “Easy Virtue” and not some other 1920s story? Unfortunately the movie doesn't provide much of an answer besides the visual appeal of nicely done costumes and the contour of satin against Biel's gym body.

As a vehicle for Biel, who plays Larita, a high-spirited American at odds with a wealthy British family, the movie is a fawning showcase that ends with her singing. A bombshell in the Jean Harlow mold, Larita rolls into the movie in the driver's seat of a sparkling vintage silver BMW ragtop, with her new, younger husband, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), at her side. She slams on the brakes at the sight of his family's sprawling estate, and makes a joke about the moat, only to discover it's outmatched as a barrier by John's mother, Mrs. Whittaker (Kristen Scott Thomas), who disapproves of just about everything, especially the freewheeling and gauchely American Larita.

The war that follows between Larita and Mrs. Whittaker is less surprising than the mildness of the battles. World War I is supplied as a backdrop — mostly in the form of the sulky, skulking living casualty, Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth) — but the resonant value is pure wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers. In one opening assault, Mrs. Whittaker places flowers in Larita's room when she learns she's allergic to pollen. In a counterattack, Larita challenges Mrs. Whittaker's authority by whipping up an American Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a turkey bearing British and American flags. (Take that!)

Elliott, not one for subtlety (he also made “The Adventures of Pricilla, Queen of the Desert”), has Larita pop a forkful of turkey in her mouth as an exclamation point on the stunt. Then he adds an omnipresent dash of peppy swing music. Evidently peppy swing music turns cheesy antics into biting wit.

Larita, alone in her attempt to fit in, at least has a natural sympathy. Mrs. Whittaker has an entire family on her side, including John, who has no money and not enough spine to stand up for his bride. His two sisters at first are enamored by Larita's stunning looks, but turn against her when a dance sketch at a fundraiser embarrasses one of them. Unfortunately the moment is one of many where the movie struggles to be amusing. The younger girl's embarrassment titillates the audience in the movie, but doubtful anyone else.

Similarly, Larita displays a work of cubist art she's shipped to the estate — a dagger disguised as a present — describing in utterly casual tones how she got undressed for it. (Well, I never!) But the main problem with “Easy Virtue” is finding the right tone and sticking to it. When Larita agrees to Mrs. Whittaker's insistence on riding in the annual fox hunt, for example, she pulls a fast one by riding Mr. Whittaker's recently rebuilt motorcycle instead of a horse. (The equivocating little devil!)

Earlier she accidentally kills a beloved family pet, an effort by Elliott to create comic pathos. Later she does the tango (literally putting her foot down?) after an emotional scene with John, to establish her fierce independence. Was the tango an impudent declaration of secession in 1924? Maybe, but in the “Easy Virtue” of 2009, with Biel at the podium, it comes off more like an earnest shout-out to individuality.

The technical aspects of the movie, the location, sets and costumes, are thoroughly competent. The Whittaker place is stuffed to the rafters with family heirlooms. Mrs. Whittaker's gigantic domed greenhouse of exotic plants looms over the estate. It really looks lived in for several generations, just as Mrs. Whittaker asserts. That BMW is really amazing. The rest of the movie is a game of multimillion-dollar dress-up. (PG-13) 96 min. HHIII S

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