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MOVIE REVIEW

Did You Hear About the Morgans?

Two witnesses, but little wit

Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant play a wealthy couple in witness protection in Wyoming. Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant play a wealthy couple in witness protection in Wyoming. (Barry Wetcher)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / December 18, 2009

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Regarding “Did You Hear About the Morgans?,’’ a new comedy with Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker: Yes, I have heard indeed, and the news is terrible. Most bad comedies plod from scene to scene. This one plods from sentence to sentence. Grant and Parker stand around as if they’re waiting for someone to yell, “Cut.’’ He’s in one movie. She’s in another. Neither is any good.

To be fair, they’re playing Paul and Meryl Morgan, a moneyed New York couple on the verge of divorce. One evening, an argument between them is interrupted when one of her real estate clients falls off a balcony with a knife in his back (making him the envy of paying audiences everywhere). They see the killer (Michael Kelly). The killer sees them. Before long, US Marshals have deemed the Morgans star witnesses and hide them away in a protection program that lands them in Wyoming, where the comedy is as sparse as the landscape.

This is the sort of movie where the city folk never miss a chance to condescend to their rural hosts, two married marshals, played by Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen, neither of whom is given much to say. But their exasperation feels apparent, all the same. Who can blame them? Meryl, with her disdain for meat and overcaffeinated amazement at big-box stores, and Paul, with his English accent, are obnoxious. These aren’t personality traits, they’re screenwriting devices. The marshals even have moose heads on their wall and no cable. An amusingly Republican Wilfred Brimley is called upon to draw more blue-state blood.

As the Morgans start to fall back in love with each other, so do their assistants (Elisabeth Moss and Jesse Liebman) back in New York. Meanwhile, the killer gets closer to Wyoming. The screenplay makes this embarrassingly easy. He bugs Meryl’s office, and Meryl sneaks traceable phone calls. This is the kind of movie that seemed to come out every month in the late 1970s and 1980s - screwball thrillers in which a woman (or two) run from a murderer. One of those Goldie Hawn-Chevy Chase movies comes to mind - “Foul Play,’’ maybe. By their finales, the Hawn-Chase films tended to run aground, but they were funny and you could tell the people in them were having a good time.

The same can’t be said of “The Morgans,’’ which Marc Lawrence wrote and directed. Everyone looks as if they’d rather be somewhere else. I’ve seen this in Lawrence’s other romantic comedies - several with Sandra Bullock, which he only wrote; and “Music and Lyrics’’ and “Two Weeks,’’ both with Grant.

Hawn and Chase had complementary approaches to comedy. Her breathlessness brought out something ironic in him: She made him seem like a debonair sleaze. Parker puts jokes over by feigning modesty. It’s a spotty approach. When Elliott invites her to milk a cow, she bats her eyelashes, clutches her hands, and asks, “Which one is skim?’’ It’d be a nice line were it delivered with any snap.

The less said about Grant the better. He and Parker have worked together before, in a forgettable 1996 hospital thriller called “Extreme Measures.’’ The intervening years have sapped from him any remaining interest in her. He has a bigger reaction to the brown bear that chases him (frankly, so does Parker). His punch lines are witless, too. Once they’ve left Grant’s mouth, he looks chagrined, as everyone sits around taking in the dead joke. Every time he speaks, it feels like a funeral.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

Correction: This story has been revised because of a reporting error that misidentified the actor playing the killer. His name is Michael Kelly.

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS?

Written and directed by:

Marc Lawrence

Starring: Hugh Grant ,

Sarah Jessica Parker,

Michael Kelly, Mary Steenburgen, and Sam Elliott

At: Boston Common,

Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 96 minutes

PG-13 (some sexual references and momentary violence)

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