I can’t evaluate her patriotism but Jessica Biel, as Larita Whittaker, a Roaring Twenties race car driver who makes a splash across the pond as a round peg in an English family’s square hole in The Art Theatre's “Easy Virtue,” directed by Stephan Elliott, written by Elliott, Sheridan Jobbins, based on the play by Noel Coward, is a good American.
She’s not so much brash as she’s energetic, flapper-stylish, and surprisingly funny. She’s strikingly pretty, with that peroxide blonde hair. She’s devoted to aristocratic husband John (Ben Barnes), whom she met and married at almost the same time when she won a car race in the south of France. We feel for her because she had lost her husband to cancer back in Detroit, which is where she comes from. He did have cancer but that’s not how died, of which more later.
But his family’s not devoted to her. Especially his mother, Kristin Scott Thomas’s sourpuss Mrs. Whittaker. She had envisioned John marrying their neighbor, Sarah Hurst (Charlotte Riley). She’s got a couple of pluses: not only does she have Mrs. Whittaker’s stamp of approval, she and John have an easy familiarity that’s as honorable as it is convenient.
With the exception of Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth), John’s family, too, is not exactly accommodating. Her new sisters-in-law Hilda (Kimberly Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson) are wrecks because, well, they are their mother’s daughters.
And John is, well, young. He’s got all the good qualities of being young and in love. He’s also surprisingly immature when it comes to dealing with his harridan mother’s treatment of his wife. As a result, a three-day meet-the-folks visit keeps getting dragged on and on and on.
The movie’s got some very funny moments. Larita tells Hilda that Parisian can-can dancers don’t wear underwear when they perform; Hilda takes it seriously, with predictably hilarious results at a benefit to raise money for war widows. Animal rights advocate Larita accidentally squashes Mrs. Whittaker’s beloved Chihuahua to death and buries him in a pillowcase. She presents the family with a Cubist portrait as a gift; she was the model, the artist was some unnamed Spaniard by the name of Picasso.
But it’s the film’s serious sides that make the surprising what-the-hell ending so effective. In the background of the plot lies the impact the Great War had on Mr. Whittaker, and which explains his unkempt look and attitude towards his family and life in general. It turns out, through Hilda’s guttersweeping research, that Larita had been accused of murdering her husband. She did, sort of: it was euthanasia. The family’s fortunes were dwindling precipitously and Mrs. Whittaker was about to subdivide the family’s fabulous estate.
And so, when Larita finally fled this dysfunctional family, she wasn’t alone. Her sudden passenger wasn’t the funny drinking-on-the-sly butler, Furber (Kris Marshall), it wasn’t Sarah’s equally funny brother, Phillip (Christian Brassington), it was someone who was world-weary, had seen far too much horror when he was a young man. On paper it’s a match made in heaven. Too bad there’s no sequel.
Show times are 4:55, 7:00, and 9:00 PM. The film runs until June 18. Tickets are $7.50-$10. The Theatre is located at 2025 E. 4th Street. For more information visit www.arttheatrelongbeach.com or call 438-5435.