(by Dustin Putman
Writer-director Marc Lawrence has only helmed three films, all within the same romantic comedy genre, but he has more than proven his abilities in taking tried-and-true homespun conventions and plots and treating them with the necessary intelligence and verve to make them feel fresh all over again. 2002's "Two Weeks Notice," 2007's "Music and Lyrics," and now "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" are as narratively predictable as the day is long, but they also all have something else in common: they tell sweet, funny love stories between likable characters the viewer roots for to have their happy ending together. That these trio of features also star Hugh Grant as the male lead time and again is sign enough that he and Lawrence make a terrific match. Article continues below
Paul (Hugh Grant) is a successful attorney at a top Manhattan law firm. Meryl (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a high-powered real estate agent currently appearing on the cover of New Yorker Magazine. They're married but separated, Meryl deeply hurt by Paul's one-time affair with a woman in Los Angeles. In the midst of Paul trying to make amends for the umpteenth time, the two of them are sole bystanders to the brutal murder of one of Meryl's clients at the hands of ruthless hitman Vincent (Michael Kelly). When it becomes clear their safety is in immediate danger, Paul and Meryl have no choice but to trade in their last name of Morgan for Foster, join the Witness Protection Program, and relocate to the tiny rural town of Ray, Wyoming. Shacking up with local married deputies Clay (Sam Elliott) and Emma Wheeler (Mary Steenburgen), Paul and Meryl are clearly out of their element in a place as diametrically different from New York City as one could possibly get while still remaining in the country. Forced to spend more time together, however, the two of them have no choice but to face head-on the problems they have had in their marriage and reassess if there may still be a future between them.
"Fish-out-of-water" stories endure through the decades because there is always so much material, comedic or otherwise, to explore within the realm of a character suddenly placed in a situation out of his or her element. Indeed, "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" shares quite a few similarities with 1997's underrated "For Richer or Poorer," wherein Tim Allen and Kirstie Alley played unhappily married New Yorkers forced to hide out in the Amish Country. The Amish are nowhere to be found here, but proud, gun-totin' Red Staters living in the middle of nowhere might as well be the same thing for Manhattan career types who don't even care for bagels served outside the city. It won't exactly be accused of great originality, but that is okay when a script has been written that charms without grossly manipulating or insulting audiences.
Writer-director Marc Lawrence has great fun coming up with dialogue zingers and awkward or quirky occurrences for his protagonists to say and experience, from Paul and Meryl's eye-opening trip to the Costco-like Bargain Barn ("Ten dollars for a sweater?" Meryl exclaims in delight. "That can't be right!"), to their lessons on shooting guns and milking cows, to Meryl's declaration that she is a vegetarian and a member of PETA ("I'm a member of PETA, too," Emma chimes in. "People for Eating Tasty Animals."), to their dining at the sole restaurant in town ("I called ahead and got us the table next to the big jars of mayonnaise," Paul jokes). Big laughs that don't resort to slapstick or strained physical humor run throughout, as do the relationship conflicts between Meryl and Paul. Meryl's feelings of betrayal and sadness over what Paul has done strike a poignant, knowing chord, while Paul's reaction to something Meryl has been keeping to herself feels just as authentic. The couple can argue passionately, but they also can more maturely talk things out, and this is where the movie achieves more than expected. Because Paul and Meryl are treated as smart people—adults capable of discussing their feelings and grievances and desires—the viewer cares about their fates all the more. Director Marc Lawrence doesn't feel the need to toss in added idiotic conflicts and dumbed-down twists; he trusts his characters enough to allow them to work things out for themselves without resorting to petty actions or childish games.
By now, Hugh Grant (2006's "American Dreamz") could play this kind of role in his sleep, and sometimes looks like he just rolled out of bed and started reciting his lines. He's good at it, though, and his Paul makes a suitable romantic partner, one who has made a terrible mistake in the past, but appears genuine in his profuse apologies. The film wisely does not let him off the hook, but treats his indiscretion with a complexity that isn't just black and white. If Grant is overly comfortable in a part that doesn't exactly push him, Sarah Jessica Parker (2008's "Sex and the City") gives it her all and steals the film as Meryl. Parker is a wonderful comedienne when called to be—her facial expressions and line deliveries are always on-point—but she also holds the emotional weight to effectively play the drama for its reality. When Meryl tells Paul all of the conflicting feelings she has about their marriage and her disappointment in him, Parker is as heartbreaking as she ever was on "Sex and the City."
As house hosts Clay and Emma, the exquisitely gravel-voiced Sam Elliott (2009's "Up in the Air") and Mary Steenburgen (2008's "Four Christmases") are warm and comfortable, veterans who know exactly what it takes to hit their supporting parts out of the park. Unnecessary filler is how to describe the subplot involving Meryl's and Paul's respective assistants, played by Elisabeth Moss (2003's "The Missing") and newcomer Jesse Liebman. These two could have all but been written out of the script without losing anything but ten minutes of the running time. Finally, it's nice to see Wilford Brimley again after an acting hiatus of almost a decade; he's quite amusing as town mayor Earl Granger, who is either humorless or expertly deadpan.
Where things are headed is unsurprising in "Did You Hear About the Morgans?"—in a town like Ray, there's got to be a falling-out at a hoedown and a climactic chase at the rodeo—but the film is on assured footing all the same in its blend of humor, gravitas and romance. Meryl and Paul are certainly well-off—they have a spacious New York apartment overlooking Central Park—but they aren't stuck-up or flagrant in their success. For all intents and purposes, they are normal people who are pleasing to be around for 105 minutes and believable enough to not strain the story's obvious machinations. In a late-year season of failed self-serious Oscar bait and few true successes, "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" is a welcome respite. It doesn't pretend to be an awards contender, and yet, oddly enough this year, it's far more entertaining and astutely written than the majority of recent releases that are.