Film Review | Sunday, 17 January 2010

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So average it hurts

There comes a film, every now and then, which appears to be obstinately resistant to reviews. This very rarely stems from the fact that the cinematic attempt in question is either a criticism-free masterpiece, or an impenetrably complex piece of work.
Both gushing and pseudo-intellectual analysis can fill up column inches easily; and every great work of art comes loaded with excess critical baggage (be it academic or journalistic), and this does not necessarily mean that any of the critics in question in fact get anything at all. Clever stuff is easy to scribble about, deplorably bad stuff is easy to complain about. But what about the obstinately mediocre?
The most recent Hugh Grant/Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle, ‘Did You Hear About The Morgans?’ belongs to this problematic category – so airtight in its clichéd but frustratingly competent set-up, that to speak about it with any incision would be to risk intellectual ridicule. But one must try. After all, just as the romcom belongs to the prime assembly line of the American film industry, so does the film critic labour to fill those dreaded column inches with cod-wisdom and questionable words of critical advice…
The marriage of a successful Manhattan couple, real estate agent Meryl Morgan (Sarah Jessica Parker) and lawyer Paul Morgan (Hugh Grant) is in danger: they are separated due to Paul’s infidelity. As Paul desperately attempts to atone for his mistake, he showers Meryl with gifts, and insists on taking her out to dinner in a fancy restaurant in an attempt to talk things through. But on that fateful night, as they walk back home, they become witnesses to the murder of one of Meryl’s clients by a contract killer and as a result, are placed under protective custody and relocated to the stuck-in-the-old-West, rural paradise of Wyoming. Once there, they are placed under the care of Clay and Emma Wheeler (Sam Eliott and Mary Steenburgen), a cheerfully gun-toting and undeniably happy older couple. As our urbane couple is thrown in with these salt of the earth types, hilarity, naturally, is expected to ensue.
The premise itself is rather bland; save for the minor (so miniscule it’s microscopic) innovation of sprinkling the proceedings with the workings of a thriller, as suspense is created while the contract killer (Michael Kelly) rifles through Manhattan in search of the couple. But back in Wyoming, all is sunshine and bumbling locals. There is something to be said about this potentially offensive fetishisation of America’s less urban backwaters. Luckily, Wyoming itself received a far more dignified and complex treatment in Annie Proulx’s short story collection ‘Close Range’ (which includes ‘Brokeback Mountain’), so this facile presentation by director Marc Lawrence should be sticks and stones. Nevertheless, presenting the region as a fun fair of rodeos and Republicans (according to one particularly corpulent character, there is a total of 14 Democrats in the region) is highly suspect, and doesn’t do much to an already cliché-ridden script.
So it’s up to the leads to save the day. Sadly, both run on autopilot – it just so happens that Grant is better at it than Jessica Parker. You know what to expect from Grant, and you know it will be more or less decent if repetitive in the extreme. Jessica Parker, on the other hand, doesn’t really exist as a dramatic presence outside of ‘Sex and the City’s Carrie, so she’s got nothing to fall back on. Save for, you know, making an effort. But really: why bother?

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