Long before Trump coined the term “fake news,” there was Orson Welles’ legendary 1938 radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds,” which convinced thousands (if not millions) of listeners they were hearing actual news bulletins about a Martian invasion. Several books and films (most notably, “The Night That Panicked America,” Joseph Sargent’s terrific 1975 TV movie, and “War of the Worlds,” Cathleen O’Connell’s shrewdly constructed 2013 PBS documentary) have emphasized the infectious terror that the broadcast inadvertently sparked among gullible folks who tuned in late and missed the introduction that clearly identified it as a presentation of Welles’ “Mercury Theatre on the Air.” But in the world according to “Brave New Jersey,” Jody Lambert’s uneven but ultimately winning comedy about small-town channel surfers who missed the intro and assumed the worst on the evening of Oct. 30, 1938, a little bit of terror might not be such a bad thing.
To be sure, the opening scenes are not promising. The setting is Lullaby, N.J., a fictional farming community not so far from Grover’s Mill, where Welles’ Martians purportedly landed, and the period is all too insistently evoked by improbably pristine costumes and vehicles. Worse, Lambert (working from a script he co-wrote with Michael Dowling) and his cast evidence uncertainty while trying to hit the sweet spot between exaggerated sincerity and straight-faced absurdity, setting a tone best described as Coen Brothers lite. The best they can do, through pointed references and responses to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, is place the narrative in historical context by suggesting why an increasingly paranoid populace might be susceptible to reports of attacks by enemy aliens.
It takes a good 15 or 20 minutes for the movie to settle into a consistent groove, and to generate anything like a rooting interest in characters who require the threat of impending apocalypse to shake free of inhibitions, compromises, bad decisions and anything else that has heretofore constricted their lives. Among the more engaging of the revitalized: Clark Hill (Tony Hale of “Veep” and “Arrested Development”), the nebbishy but conscientious mayor who pines for the loyal but vaguely discontented spouse of oily businessman Paul Davison (Sam Jaeger); Lorraine Davidson (Heather Burns), Paul’s wife, who is a great deal more accessible after her husband beats a cowardly retreat out of town; and Rev. Ray Rogers (Dan Bakkedahl), whose stalled faith gets a miraculous jump-start when he construes the Martian invasion as a manifestation of the divine.
A few snatches of dialogue are distractingly anachronistic (“This could be it for us, life-wise!”), but there’s nothing at all jarring, and quite a bit that’s satisfying, about the matter-of-fact way some well-drawn (and well-played) female characters — including Anna Camp as a Sunday School teacher who rebels against her condescending fiancé to take up arms against the extraterrestrial menace — are emboldened and empowered by the prospect of annihilation. Erika Alexander makes a singularly strong impression as Helen, a farmwife who, in what arguably is the movie’s best scene, more or less backhands Rev. Rogers, and the audience, into remembering that some people take their relationship to God, and their fear of murderous Martians, extremely seriously.
Credit also must go to veteran character actor Raymond J. Barry, who steals every scene that isn’t bolted to the floor as Capt. Ambrose E. Collins, a decorated World War I veteran who, after surviving wartime horrors, isn’t at all afraid of Martian invaders — and who, even after he learns the “invasion” is just the stuff of radio drama, continues to lead his fellow townspeople in a collective response to the invaders because he wants them to be all they can be. This is a role that easily could have been played for laughs, and Collins is all the more impressive because, no joke, he plays for keeps.