In Did You Hear About the Morgans?, Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker are supposed to pass for a married couple, but they have all the chemistry of two actors who just met and shook hands moments before the cameras rolled. They don't even seem to like each other much - I'm fairly certain I saw Parker's nostrils flaring in one scene - which poses a bit of a problem for a movie that hinges on their characters working out their differences and living happily ever after.
Grant in particular looks bored and distracted and eager to get this silly movie done with so he can go back to England and live his movie-star life. Grant can be an effortless, likable charmer - his performance in the wonderful About a Boy is particularly underrated - but in Did You Hear About the Morgans?, even his trademark stammering feels forced. When an actor's heart isn't in his work, you start noticing all the wrong things. Grant looks like he's been hitting the gym, he's had a little work done, and he seems utterly bored by acting - or at least bored by the role of Paul Morgan, a Manhattan lawyer trying to reconcile with his estranged wife Meryl (Parker), who kicked him out after he cheated on her.
After an awkward please-take-me-back dinner, the couple witnesses a mob hit and is placed into a relocation program, which means moving to a flyspeck town in Wyoming and learning how to ride horses, milk cows and shoot rifles. Yee-haw! Yes, this is yet another one of those movies in which small-town folk teach big-city hotshots what really matters in life.
But writer-director Marc Lawrence, who previously worked with Grant on Two Weeks Notice and Music and Lyrics, gets passable work from everyone else in the cast, including Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen as the salt-of-the-earth couple who shelter the Morgans in their home, and Wilford "I Ain't Dead Yet!" Brimley as a local business owner who gets the movie's best line. (‘‘Think what you want." You have to hear it in context). In a handful of throwaway scenes, Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss, playing Meryl's tireless personal assistant, steals the movie outright from her famous co-stars: You wish the entire film was about her.
Even Parker, who will never again be able to play anything other than a relationship-obsessed New Yorker, fares well in the role of the city slicker forced to appreciate the charms of rural life and learn how to deal with the random grizzly bear encounter(her astonished delight at discovering the $9.99 sweater rack at the local Bargain Barn is genuinely amusing). Parker also pulls off one of the first - to my knowledge - Sarah Palin jokes to grace a major Hollywood picture. She's totally game, even if she can't entirely shake off Carrie Bradshaw.
Did You Hear About the Morgans? isn't as condescending as, say, The Ugly Truth or All About Steve: There's bona fide effort up on the screen. The problem is that you can see the effort - and in the case of Grant, you wish there were a little more. A lot more. If the leading man in a would-be comedy isn't having any fun, then how can we?
Did You Hear About the Morgans? opens on Friday, Dec. 18.