Parker and Grant endure witless protection

When city folk go to the countryside, there are two typical outcomes – at least in Hollywood. Deprived of cell phones and civilization, either they get eaten by inbred psychos or they learn about what really matters in life.

In Did You Hear About the Morgans? it’s the latter – although some might wish it was the former. But if you like Hugh Grant and/or Sarah Jessica Parker – or at least like seeing them suffer – you’ll be able to tolerate this predictable comedy.

Meryl (Parker) and Paul (Grant) Morgan are a Manhattan power couple. She’s a top real estate broker and he’s a successful lawyer. They’ve been estranged for three months, following Paul’s infidelity. Paul longs for forgiveness but Meryl still needs space. Unfortunately for her, she’s not going to get it. After the couple witness a murder, they become key figures in a federal case, and need to be relocated immediately, with new identities, to Ray, Wyoming, a small town in the middle of nowhere. Hi-jinks ensue.

The fish-out-of-water shtick is incredibly familiar – To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Sweet Home Alabama – and Did You Hear About the Morgans? adds little to the concept, sticking to mining laughs in a typical fashion. There’s a touch of timeliness in references to the global financial crisis and a throwaway comment about Sarah Palin (although that’s all a bit old by now), but otherwise, it’s pretty much a cinematic throwback, the kind of film that belongs in the 1990s.

The locals are salt-of-the-earth Republican meat-eaters, occasionally bordering on xenophobia (“We don’t take kindly to strangers around here”), while the urbanites are helpless in a world without Chinese takeaway and BlackBerrys. They’re disturbed by rural silence and amazed by starry skies and $10 sweaters.

Similarly, most characters are safely within the actors’ comfort zones. If this movie was a costume party, the invitation must have read “come as you are”. Parker’s Meryl is neurotic and hopelessly romantic, a blend of Sex and the City‘s Carrie and Smart People’s Janet. Grant does his usual bumbling Englishman thing as Paul, with a dash of Bridget Jones‘ Daniel Cleaver. There’s something for lovers and haters of the duo here, particularly the moments where Grant faces off with a bear and repeatedly endures slapstick violence.

Sam Elliot, as Sheriff Clay Wheeler, the Morgans’ keeper and Meryl’s country “cousin”, pimps out his patented laconic cowboy – he even only has John Wayne and Clint Eastwood DVDs. Mary Steenburgen perfectly complements him as his warm-hearted wife and deputy, much like her characters in Back to the Future Part III and the recent The Proposal. Elisabeth Moss, fabulous in Mad Men, draws on Peggy’s ambitiousness as Meryl’s personal assistant.

Yet the film is saved from feeling like a chore by how genuinely nice a place Ray seems. Yes, it occasionally looks like a Wild West set from the Universal Studios back lot, but the on-location vistas are beautiful – especially the golden cornfields and blue skies – and the townsfolk, though slightly caricatured, are pleasant and friendly.

Grant and Parker have little chemistry, but somehow you grow to care about them both and their marriage and general survival. The killer thriller aspect is perfunctory, serving mainly as a plot device, facilitating the relocation and finally paying off with an “I am Spartacus” moment that demonstrates the kindness of the Ray denizens. The real drama comes from the depth of the Morgan’s marital dilemma, which amid all the cartoony humor, is down-to-earth.

And although you’ll predict the outcome from the get-go, the finale is feel-good and well-earned. Just as you’d want this sort of film to end – unless you prefer Texan chainsaw massacres, of course.

**

Did You Hear About the Morgans? (Castle Rock Entertainment, 103 minutes)
Directed by Marc Lawrence
Produced by Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer
Written by Marc Lawrence
Starring Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Elliott, Mary Steenburgen, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Kelly, Wilford Brimley, Jesse Liebman

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