'Easy Virtue' aims to please too much

I tried to give "Easy Virtue" a chance -- I swear. But even a movie that's as superficially polished as this one, with its fancy surroundings, game-for-a-laugh cast and bubbly soundtrack (which I'll get to in a minute), can still have a repetitive, been-there-done-that weight to it. It might be decked to the nines, but it ain't going nowhere, Jack!

Truth be told, "Virtue," based on a Noel Coward play, isn't that different from the Stiller-De Niro "Meet the . . ." movies, "The Family Stone" or even that art-house rebel "Junebug." If you've seen one movie where a young guy or girl brings his/her love of his/her life to meet the family and that person gets into bumbling fiasco after bumbling fiasco as the clan judgmentally looks on, well, you've already seen "Virtue."

That's what happens to Larita (a platinum-blonde Jessica Biel), a widowed, successful race car driver who marries the young, British John (Ben Barnes) after winning a race in Monte Carlo and gets immediately whisked away to his family's rural estate. Of course, since they're all British, she's mostly met with tightly closed arms. Matriarch Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas) can't stop seething at the sight of her boy's new bride, while John's spinster sisters (Kimberley Nixon and Katherine Parkinson) have their suspicions. The only one who doesn't disapprove of Larita is big daddy Colonel Jim (Colin Firth), a man too haunted by his World War I experiences to pass judgment on anyone.

Embarrassing hijinks soon ensue, as Larita goes through one gaffe after another (there's one situation with the family dog that may have some animal lovers running out of the theater in horror), giving the Whittaker ladies more reasons why this common American shouldn't be welcomed into the family. Eventually, Larita gives up trying to impress and engages in a battle of wills with Veronica, briefly turning this movie into a classy but equally grating version of the Jane Fonda-Jennifer Lopez clunker "Monster-In-Law."

If you think "Virtue" might be a movie that's too saditty for your taste, then you'll be surprised by how middle-brow this movie turns out to be. (I mean, it's a British comedy starring Justin Timberlake's girlfriend!) Co-writer/director Stephan Elliott takes Coward's melodramatic play (which Alfred Hitchock also turned into a silent film in 1928) and wraps it up in Silly Putty, giving the film an eccentric, screwball bounce. But it's a bounce that doesn't provide much of a satisfying payoff, as the climax manages to be both unruly and stubborn at the same time.

Elliott even throws in the movie's soundtrack swinging, anachronistic covers of songs like Rose Royce's "Car Wash" (I'm kinda glad Norman Whitfield isn't alive to witness this) and -- I kid you not -- Billy Ocean's "When The Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going." For a movie that has its lone, American protagonist feeling unwelcome, it's all about pleasing the Yanks!

The porcelain cast appears up for the occasion. While Firth gets all the witty lines as the playfully passive Colonel, Scott Thomas does make one devious ice queen with her chilly stares and subtle putdowns. I was impressed a bit with Biel and her attempt to get her Jean Harlow-style vamp on, until I realized she was playing somebody who's much older than her husband. Are they kidding me? She still looks like that same teenage hellcat she played on "7th Heaven." She certainly does what she can trying to convince us why she's even attracted to Barnes' woefully underwritten character.

Oh yes, "Easy Virtue" features shenanigans made to rustle the feathers of the uppity folk on-screen and tickle the funny bone of the audience. But its crowd-pleasing tactics seem more desperate than enjoyable. But, hey, I gave it a chance -- and this is what I got.

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