Lost plot

Witty supporting roles and a few charming moments don't save 'Did You Hear About the Morgans?' from a stilted story and unfunny script.

The inexorable downwards drift of Hugh Grant's career continues with this corny comedy. Aspiring to be romantic and heartwarming, Did You Hear About the Morgans? lumbers through 100 minutes of laboured jokes and predictable dramatic twists before settling for a feeble slapstick finale. This is not an entirely charmless film, just resoundingly mediocre, with a fatally unfunny script and a capable cast who really should know better.

The plot feels tired and second-hand almost before it begins. Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker play a high-flying New York couple who, in the throes of a marital crisis, become key witnesses to an underworld murder. With their lives in peril, the bickering pair must sever all ties with Manhattan and enter an FBI witness protection scheme in a sleepy rural corner of Wyoming. Here they are protected by a kindly local couple of US Marshalls, played by Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen, who school the metropolitan fishes out of water in the gun-toting, meat-eating, Republican-voting traditions of Middle America.

The writer-director Marc Lawrence knows the culture clash between America's cosmopolitan coastal elite and proudly redneck heartland has never been more topical or satirically fruitful: there is even a joke about Sarah Palin. Sadly, instead of finding something insightful to say on this perennial Hollywood cliché, he manages merely to patronise and caricature both groups. Parker and Grant are initially presented as snobby urban divas, addicted to the expensive foods and luxury goods of their upscale New York life while remaining absurdly ignorant of life outside the city. The Wyoming locals, meanwhile, are mostly ditsy prom queens, hicks in pickup trucks and weather-beaten old cowboys dispensing homespun wisdom as sentimental music twangs in the background. Exposure to the grand vistas and back-porch values of "real" America, of course, helps bring the estranged couple back together.

Grant has never been a versatile actor, but he surpasses himself here for wooden delivery and painfully mirthless clowning. Stiff-necked and mugging wildly, he pushes his upper-class English twit persona to new extremes with a performance seemingly modelled on London's buffoonish mayor Boris Johnson. Parker is slightly more convincing, but her shrill and pushy character is no more sympathetic. Her tepid screen chemistry with Grant barely tickles the thermometer.

By striking contrast, Steenburgen and Elliott convey far more warmth, depth and wry humour with much smaller roles. These two old pros provide pretty much the only reason to see Did You Hear About the Morgans? And that is simply not enough. Grant has made two movies with Lawrence before, Two Weeks Notice and Music and Lyrics. Neither was very memorable, but both contained a few smart ideas, a smattering of funny lines, and just enough charm to earn healthy returns at the box office - none of which can be said of their third collaboration, which limps along from one stilted and groaningly implausible set-up to the next. If Grant and Lawrence carry on like this, they are in danger of giving witlessly formulaic romcoms a bad name.