Saturday, 4 September 2010

This is the scene in Did You Hear About the Morgans? (dir Marc Lawrence, 2009) that neatly sums up what the film is ultimately, and regrettably, about. If you tether a reliable franchise to something immoveable and aggressively milk it for everything it's got, you risk getting kicked in the leg by an irate cow.

Both Hugh Grant - who plays the husband, Paul, a man so eager to please his wife he bends over too far backwards - and Sarah Jessica Parker - who plays the estranged and still-angry damsel, Meryl - are lucrative Hollywood comedic properties. In the film, Meryl has separated from lawyer Paul because he slept with another woman while on a California business trip. Now, look guys. It's been 15 years since the Los Angeles vice squad nabbed Grant in a car on the street getting a blowjob from a prostitute, but it seems as though we haven't forgiven him yet for this peccadillo.

Real life enters the story via another avenue, too. Meryl is a celebrated boutique real-estate agent who has just had her picture placed on the cover of New York magazine, a scenario mirroring Parker's success through the Sex and the City franchise. But the film never extricates itself from the self-referential mire these elements induce. Time has simply been too unkind to both of the players. Grant is too mature for this sort of thing - he's got a rather prunish mien that militates against the boyish earnestness his regular schtick depends on for its success - and Parker looks a tad stringy in the facial region. How to suck another romantic comedy out of these two ever-more-wrinkly properties must have seriously engaged the minds of the studios for months, if not longer. This film is the result of a process of elimination.

Adding drama, to take attention away from this stale formula, is vigorously attempted. Grant jumps the shark pretty early-on in the film. They've just arrived in Ray, Wyoming, a sleepy little hamlet set firmly within the bear-infested red zone of American politics: God-fearing, Republican, laconic and blunt. The bear takes Paul by surprise and he gets out of his scrape only after copping a face-full of capsicum spray from the hysterical Meryl. The episode serves to relocate them to the doctor's office. This guy's mother has a house up for sale but little luck attracting a buyer. One unamusing event helps to cement Paul and Meryl in the town's affections. There are others, too. It's all so drole you just want to die laughing.

They're not cemented in our affections, regardless of how hard the filmmakers try. The pair come to Wyoming on the witness relocation program after seeing one of Meryl's New York clients get killed. The hit man is now on their trail and the only safe place is out in the side-splittingly rustic boondocks. Meryl plays into the hands of the determined assassin whose task is to take them out, by making a call from the doctor's office to her adoption agency. The agency calls Meryl's New York personal assistant, Jackie (Elisabeth Moss). The killer visits Meryl's office and bugs Jackie's handbag and office desk. Soon enough, he's on the road like a virus in a late-model sedan.

Meanwhile, back at the Ray Rodeo, we espy the fake cow suit that we know (we just know) Meryl and Paul will use at some point down the track, since Meryl is stupid enough to go against the orders of her local minder, US Marshall Clay Wheeler (played by a dour Sam Elliot), by making that phone call. But she's a typical New Yorker: she can't stop herself talking when the opportunity presents itself to do so.

Other ways the two come off looking like square pegs in this sleepy rural town? Meryl, seeing Wheeler's wife Emma (Mary Steenburgen) try out a new gun at the local discount barn, says "Oh my God, it's Sarah Palin!" Jokes like this are unsubtle and they're also ineffective. Emma and Clay come out of the clash of civilisations (Meryl is a member of PETA, Emma keeps the refrigerator liberally stocked with large hunks of bloody meat) looking well-ironed and unflappable. Meryl and Paul resemble spoilt adolescents with no inkling as to the important things in life, such as trusting your husband and risking being hurt in love. The blue-red split in American politics is meant to be the source of much hilarity. It ends up being an unequal contest between down-home wisdom and half-baked sophistication. Though Meryl and Paul win over the rednecks in the end, it's just a pity that they don't win over the audience.

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