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General Apathy and Major Boredom Singing ...

By Dustin Rowles | Film | December 21, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | December 21, 2009 |

There are an inordinate number of movies — particularly romantic comedies — that start out as nothing more than a one-sentence pitch. Someone comes up with a high concept idea — a separated Manhattan couple are relocated to a backwoods Wyoming town as a part of the witness relocation program, where they fall in love all over again, in the case of Did You Hear About the Morgans? — and studio producers assign that pitch to a writer or even a writer/director (Marc Lawrence, Music and Lyrics) in this case), and a couple of actors are attached to the project, usually before a script is even put forward.

What I don’t really understand about Hollywood — and here’s where I betray some ignorance — is who comes up with this boneheaded pitches in the first place? A roomful of monkeys in a poo-flinging brainstorm session? I used to have a significant other who had a mentally disabled sister in her 30s (truly a lovely woman), who lived in a care facility and stuffed envelopes for a living while she watched “Sesame Street.” I often wonder if romantic-comedy pitches come out of those same institutions. There’s about as much thought going into them as it takes to stuff an envelope with a donation request.

I also think that the term “high-concept” is misleading, as it seems to suggest intelligent premise, when “high concept” actually means: Retarded. A screenwriting website defines a high concept as one with these four elements:

1) it is universal;

2) it has a fresh twist;

3) it involves an empathetic hero who is dealing with a BIG problem; and

4) can be summed up in a 25-word logline that gives a good picture of the entire movie.

It’s the last element that is most troubling — Hollywood actually favors ideas that can be summed up in 25 words. It explains so much about the industry, doesn’t it? That a writer, director, and two big-named stars would sign on to a 25-word pitch (that could’ve been written on Twitter) before a script has even been written? It puts so much of the onus on the actors, who are often very pretty, but not particularly bright, people.

Did You Hear About the Morgans? undoubtedly began as one of those pitches, which Hugh Grant probably signed on to once Marc Lawrence was attached, having had a history with him (Music and Lyrics, Two Weeks Notice) while Sarah Jessica Parker likely signed on because they couldn’t get Sandra Bullock, and what the hell else is Parker supposed to do between Sex and the City movies? Also, she’d worked with Grant before on Extreme Measures, and though that movie failed at the box office, Grant likely didn’t try to molest her, so bonus! Sign her up.

That’s all it really takes to green light a movie — a pitch and two recognizable stars.

The result is about what you’d expect from a project that relies so heavily on the personalities of its two stars, neither of whom seemed to particularly care whether Did You Hear About the Morgans? did well or not, as they’re both likely at the tail end of the career as romantic comedy leads and just want to cash-in while they still can. This is an instance where our cynical perspective of Hollywood dovetails perfectly with the end product — there’s really no other explanation for Did You Hear About the Morgans? except that Avatar was opening and the box-office needed to fill a counter programming need, hoping to attract women whose boyfriends and husbands were in adjacent theaters getting an eyeful of blue aureole (and how pathetic can you imagine I felt, being the only man in a sparsely populated theater while Avatar was playing next door? I should’ve worn jammies and taped a sign to my chest that said, “Free cuddles!”).

Did You Hear About the Morgans? represents the rare instance where I actually would’ve welcomed a laugh track, just so that I might have known which parts of the movie were intended as comedy. There’s not an amusing line in the movie, nor a genuine one. It’s an absurdly contrived situation that no one even bothers to exploit too much. Everyone in the movie — save for “Mad Men’s” Elizabeth Moss, in a minor role — seems to have been knocked on their asses by a wave of apathy. There’s nothing in the film beyond that 25-word logline and a group of actors staidly moving toward their marks and delivering exactly what what’s on the page of an obviously hastily written script.

I can’t even describe the movie beyond that logline: “A separated Manhattan couple are relocated to a backwoods Wyoming town as a part of the witness relocation program, where they fall in love all over again.” That’s the entirety of the film. There’s nothing in between the lines. There are no twists, no curveballs, and next to know character development. That’s exactly what happens. The biggest effort the filmmakers make to even elicit a laugh was by casting Wilford Brimley in a small supporting role and hoping that his presence, alone, might prompt a few titters (it doesn’t). Even the final act eschews absurd, big romantic comedy gestures, opting instead just to coast toward the credits with as minimal effort as possible.

I abhor high-concept romantic comedies like What Happens in Vegas and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days as much as the next person, but after seeing Did You Hear About the Morgans?, I actually found myself missing the over-the-top situations and the forced comedy. Forced or no, at least there was an attempt made. In Morgans, no one even cares enough to bother.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.