The mind wanders while watching Did You Hear About the Morgans?, but the upside is that it allowed for the formation of an exciting new theory: there’s an emerging attitude in mainstream Hollywood, born not of inclusiveness but rather box office necessity. What’s happening (stay with me here, I promise it’ll be more interesting than the film) is that mainstream studio movies are becoming less condescending in order to attract wider audiences. The trend ignited with the Tyler Perry phenomenon, and it’s starting to spread. Five years ago, the Catholicism of the Sandra Bullock character in The Blind Side would have been the butt of jokes—or the character’s religion would not have been addressed. Instead, her religiosity is accepted without comment and the film has expanded its audience to those skeptical of them Hollywood liberals. The same has been attempted in Marc Lawrence’s new and underwhelming trifle. Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker play an estranged, high-powered couple from Manhattan hiding from an assassin in the Wyoming hinterlands, where the NRA holds sway and people attend rodeos and say “howdy.” Normally such Red State values would be played for laughs, if not insults. But the townsfolk here are “God fearing” people who just happen to live in Wyoming. It’s refreshing, although it hardly makes this predictable, leaden, unfunny and unnecessary film any good. But it may attract a few extra small towners, who’ll appreciate not being denigrated by a Hollywood comedy. They won’t, however, appreciate anything else in this otherwise terrible movie.
Morgans also proves another theory, which is that Marc Lawrence should stop making films. Or maybe he should find another type of film to make. A romantic comedy auteur of the blandest variety, Lawrence (Music and Lyrics) is working for the third time with muse Hugh Grant, who not only insists on making the same film over and over but on giving the same performance over and over. Here he plays lawyer Paul Morgan, who gets the ball rolling by trying to make reparations to wife Meryl (Parker) following a night of infidelity. After plying her with sculptures and yucca plants and having a star named after her, Paul convinces Meryl to see him for dinner. During their apres-dinner stroll they witness a murder, the body dropping to the street with a thud, like so many Lawrence one-liners. The murder has something to do with an international arms dealer, not that anyone cares, least of all Lawrence. He just needs to get the Morgans out of Manhattan, which he does by having the couple enter the witness protection program to avoid a hitman (we know he’s the hitman, you see, because he has a scar). So it’s off to the backwaters of Ray, Wyoming where they’re placed in the care of small town sheriff Clay (Sam Elliot) and wife Emma (Mary Steenburgen), which gives Peter plenty of time to win Meryl back.
It’s a compliment (the only one I can think of) to say the film doesn’t always go for the joke of least resistance once the Morgans reach flyover town. Emma teaches Meryl how to use a rifle and Meryl quite likes it. Peter never masters chopping wood, but at least the joke’s on the city folk, allowing the country folk to keep their dignity. However, considering what does pass for guffaws, easy laughs would have been welcome. Lawrence can definitely fire off a one-liner, but too often he’s shooting blanks. There’s also a broad and sorry scene involving bear repellent and a refund-justifying passage where Peter and Meryl climb into a rodeo bull costume, he the front half, she the back. And the movie has no snap. Watching it unfold is like trudging through sand. Saddest, though, is that we’re not buying Grant’s charming sarcasm like we used to, especially in the service of such bad material. We’ve become immune to his ticklish deadpan. What used to hit the bull’s-eye, now bounces off the dartboard. If anyone exits the film more employable than when they entered, it’s Parker. The facial lines of worry that come with age help her carry the film’s emotional baggage (although it’s more like carry-on luggage). Meryl, the real estate baroness, agnostic and diehard Manhattanite, is wounded and confused, but never so wounded that her beaming smile at the fade out isn’t inevitable. Indeed, Peter and Meryl’s reconciliation is preordained, as is the hitman finding his way to Wyoming for the big finale. But a romantic comedy having a predictable story isn’t necessarily fatal (although it’s becoming increasingly common and dispiriting). Also survivable are the unimaginative representations of rural life, such as horseshoes, bingo and overgrown mustaches. All that matters is what the film ultimately means to the audience and how funny it is while conveying that meaning. The answers are, respectively: nothing and not funny at all.
Cast: Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Elliot and Mary Steenburgen
Director/Screenwriter: Marc Lawrence
Producers: Martin Shafer and Liz Glotzer
Rating: PG-13 for some sexual references and momentary violence.
Running time: 103 min.
Release date: December 18, 2009