'Did You Hear About the Morgans?'

Barely civil Manhattan marrieds witness a murder, move to Wyoming and, naturally, rediscover love.

A fish-out-of-water story with a bit of a freshness issue, “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant as barely civil Manhattan marrieds who witness a murder, move to Wyoming and, naturally, rediscover love, liberty and the pursuit of sappiness. While no one involved needs to go into witness protection, “Morgans” exploits enough tired presumptions about city-vs.-country life that auds might start to hear the “Green Acres” theme playing in their heads. Still, the pic’s star power and writer-director Marc Lawrence’s flair for the romantic-comedy-as-Jell-O-shot (“Music and Lyrics”) should spell decent B.O. and even a few laughs.

Over a black-and-white opening credits sequence, we hear lawyer Paul Morgan (Grant) leaving an extended voicemail for his estranged wife, Meryl (Parker), a high-rolling New York real estate agent whose success has landed her on the cover of a major magazine. Paul is clearly trying to woo Meryl back, but his efforts annoy not only Meryl but also the couple’s his-and-her personal assistants, Jackie (Elisabeth Moss) and Adam (Jesse Liebman), whose obsessive text-messaging and general careerism is neither charming nor funny. Nor, for that matter, is much of the pic’s depiction of Manhattan as a soul-crushing hellhole.

Everyone looks a bit frantic and miserable. After some begging on Paul’s part, Meryl agrees to dine with him at a high-end East Side restaurant (presumably so they can bum out all the other people eating $100 dinners). Taking a postprandial walk to their respective homes, they get an unexpected treat: A murder takes place on a terrace above them, the body plummets to the street, and the killer shows his face to the startled couple.

That the dead man was Meryl’s client is almost completely irrelevant, and so is the ensuing narrative: Turns out the victim was an arms dealer, and the assassin, Vincent (Michael Kelly), presumably was working for a foreign agent or government. Given that the feds know all about the arms dealer and nothing about the killer, why wouldn’t Vincent just leave town, his anonymity intact? Because then there wouldn’t be a movie. Instead, Vincent begins hunting the Morgans, risking everything for nothing, and prompting the feds to move the warring couple to Wyoming.

Fittingly, once Paul and Meryl get out West, “Did Your Hear About the Morgans?” gets a second wind. The Morgans are received by the local marshal, Clay Wheeler (Sam Elliott, looking more and more as if his face should be embossed on a U.S. coin), and his wife, Emma (Mary Steenburgen), who are used to playing host to federal witnesses/weirdos. Which is a good thing, as the Morgans play out their little psychodrama with no regard for the thinness of the walls or the way sound can travel on a night so quiet that, as Paul says, “I think I could hear my cells dividing.”

The couples get to know each other. “Do you hunt?” Emma asks Meryl. “Just for bargains,” Meryl chirps, and as recycled as her line might sound (Parker’s delivery could occasionally use a B12 shot), there’s a certain liveliness to the way the relationships are portrayed. Clay and Emma aren’t rednecks, and Meryl and Paul aren’t blinkered idiots who think the world revolves around them; unlike say, Renee Zellweger’s character in the woeful “New in Town,” they don’t act bent out of shape because they’re stuck in a rustic burg, alienating the locals. They’re self-effacing and fresh, even if some of the dialogue isn’t.

“Morgans” moves along predictably enough — when Paul buys grizzly-bear repellent, the question isn’t whether he will accidentally spray himself in the face, but how many times. As the transplants are introduced to the inevitable charms of Western living and Western politics, Lawrence’s script doesn’t shy away from red-state/blue-state realities. But the charm of the film is that it resists turning people into cliches and lets Parker and Grant work their particular magic — before they get to Wyoming, their performances are as stressed out as their characters, and while it’s a dubious conceit that going cowboy is a cure-all, they put the notion across as convincingly as possible.

Steenburgen makes a sexy, lanky cowgirl and Elliott is his usual laconic/iconic self. Another institution, Wilford Brimley, delivers a something a bit bigger than a cameo as a crusty conservative and New Yorker’s nightmare; between him and Elliott, it’s like the National Mustache Faceoff.

Production values are top-notch.

Did You Hear About the Morgans?

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Relativity Media of a Castle Rock Entertainment/Banter Films production. Produced by Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer. Executive producers, Anthony Katagas, Ryan Kavanaugh. Co-producer, Melissa Wells. Directed, written by Marc Lawrence.

Crew

Camera (color, Deluxe prints), Florian Ballhaus; editor, Susan E. Morse; music, Theodore Shapiro; music supervisor, Robert Schaper; production designer, Kevin Thompson; art director, Stephen Carter; set decorator, Susan Bode Tyson; costume designer, Christopher Peterson; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Michael Barosky; supervising sound editor, Robert Hein; special effects coordinator, Drew Jiritano; visual effects supervisor, Justin Ball; visual effects, Brainstorm Digital; choreographer, Dan Karaty; stunt coordinator, Manny Siverio; assistant director, Julie A. Bloom; casting, Ilene Starger. Reviewed at Ziegfeld Theater, New York, Dec. 14, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Paul Morgan - Hugh Grant Meryl Morgan - Sarah Jessica Parker Clay Wheeler - Sam Elliott Emma Wheeler - Mary Steenburgen Jackie - Elisabeth Moss Vincent - Michael Kelly Earl Granger - Wilford Brimley Adam - Jesse Liebman
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