Is Katherine Heigl the Antichrist? Jennifer Aniston the spawn of Satan? I’m not entirely sure, but what they’ve done to the romantic comedy is hellish. In a generation we’ve gone from Moonstruck to gobsmacked, and that is well and truly The Ugly Truth, Ms. Heigl. C’mon, Jen; The Bounty Hunter? Sperm donor farces? They’d surely float on water if a movie tribunal tried them for genre witchery, with only frequent co-star Gerard Butler rising to their defense. Oh, for the glory days of Drew and Sandra in their prime, even if the glory was fleeting.
By this degraded standard Morning Glory, which opened today, is at least a qualified success. Let’s sweep the minuses out of the way. The screenwriter, Aline Brosh McKenna, also brought us Heigl’s 27 Dresses, all of which needed to be returned. The director, Roger Michell, was at the helm of Notting Hill (Julia! Hugh!)–compared to Life as We Know It, The Birth of a Nation–yet sticks close to the contemporary playbook. It has all those annoying externals: The slick, slightly vacuous, TV look, the happy-time editing (when in doubt, fast-forward the actors, it’s funny), the peppy pop soundtrack, and the hair. From scene to scene, Rachel McAdams is a symphony of bangs–flowing bangs, cascading bangs, tsunamis of bangs. If Morning Glory were in 3D you’d be issued a comb along with your glasses.
But. McKenna has the wit to make fun of these gang bangs, teasing our girl, making her all the more irresistible. And McAdams is a hoot. A low-intensity movie star, in part due to choosiness, and in part due to the inevitable questionable choices (she’s the girl you want to get to know, making her woman of mystery in Sherlock Holmes a miscalculation), she bursts into flame in Morning Glory, a whirligig of nervous comic energy as Becky, an associate producer at a morning news station in New Jersey. Unable to find any work-and-life balance given her early rising schedule and a chronic inability to focus on anything beyond her immediate periphery (the first, and last, date scene that begins the movie gets the movie off to a fast start), Becky falls off the beam entirely when she’s fired. A tornado of resumes later Becky lands a dream job, as the executive producer of “Daybreak,” a New York morning news show.
There are however several catches for our budding Mary Richards (and the film is a lot closer in spirit to The Mary Tyler Moore Show than Broadcast News, a film finally getting its DVD and Blu-ray due via the Criterion Collection in January). The cellar-dwelling show has decrepit premises to match its woeful reputation. Her new boss Jerry, played with Zen consternation by Jeff Goldblum, has little faith in her abilities. And her tics and insecurities threaten to swamp a possible new relationship with a more blue-blooded worker bee, Adam (Patrick Wilson), who toils on the high-toned news program “Seven Days.”
To her credit, McKenna did script The Devil Wears Prada, the smartest workplace comedy of recent times, and she gives two veteran movie stars pitchforks this time. “Daybreak” co-anchor Colleen (Diane Keaton), all ice and cynicism underneath her TV smiles, is briefly mollified when Becky womans up and fires her sniggering, sexist co-chair (a vivid cameo for Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell). The detente only lasts as long as it takes for Becky to make her big move: pulling the laid-off anchor of “Seven Days,” Mike (Harrison Ford), out of his contractual mothballs and onto the show. Openly contemptuous of “Daybreak,” Becky, Colleen, and anyone who hasn’t covered Kosovo, Mike refuses to play nice with the morning crew, giving our plucky, perky producer a tough nut to crack.
Issues of journalistic integrity and responsibility in an age where everything is blurred by entertainment aren’t exactly foremost in Morning Glory, where they boil down to Mike defending the “bran” of hard news while Becky whips up “doughnuts” of daily infotainment. No, Morning Glory is about Mike and Colleen having death matches over their morning sign-off, each trying to get the last “goodbye” in, Becky dreaming up wild, ratings-grabbing stunt assignments for the terrorized weatherman (Matt Malloy), and our girl finding time in her schedule for Adam as a cancellation deadline for “Daybreak” looms. Not enough time to wonder, what with montages and all, why a go-getter like Becky is more interested in fusty news shows than Internet entrepreneurship as a career choice. Ah, but those kids labor in isolation, cut off from their fellow eccentrics. Morning Glory, a movie so sweet-natured it wouldn’t recognize the secondary meaning of its title, isn’t about work, it’s about family, as Becky patches up a newsroom-wide substitute for her own absent dad and undercutting mom (Patti D’Arbanville).
The movie is foremost about the pleasures of acting. “My” stars, the ones I grew up with, are more and more having to make do with crumbs or, in the case of any actress over 60, Meryl Streep’s leftovers. Under those circumstances I can’t begrudge a talent as idiosyncratic as Keaton’s making do with Mama’s Boy and some of the other glitches on her CV, and Morning Glory shows she still has some gas in the tank as she teams up combustibly with Ford. He is by far the stranger case–save for his senior Indiana Jones, he hasn’t been himself since 1997 and Air Force One, in rickety vehicles that haven’t gotten off the ground. He comes on strong in Morning Glory, channeling Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, then modulates under Becky’s all-hands-on-deck stewardship. Mike’s misanthropic frustration at being marooned by his own standards is etched in his Ford’s face…and underneath, I think, is the actor’s relief at getting a part that has a definite Oscar arc to it, one that only requires him to com and not to rom. While agreeably paired with Melanie Griffith in Working Girl (1988) the whole younger woman relationship jazz ended badly for him and Sabrina seven years later, if more happily offscreen with Calista Flockhart.
Shoring up the romantic side, better-developed here than in Devil, is the reliable Wilson, my dream stay-at-home dad for his performance in Little Children. (Well, except for the laziness, irresponsibility, and infidelity. Mostly for the muscle tone. And the hair.) A highlight of any New York-made movie is a supporting cast made up of New York theater actors, and Morning Glory gives us, among others, Jayne Houdyshell as a long-suffering station employee, J. Elaine Marcos as a ditsy fashion specialist with a unique vocabulary, and a scene-stealing opportunity for Kristine Nielsen. Plus John Pankow in a variation on Devil‘s Stanley Tucci part. Certain critics, burned on the Heigl/Aniston flicks, have their knives out for this one, but with a cast like this and a reasonably amusing script what’s to complain that Morning Glory doesn’t reinvent the chick flick?
Still, even with McAdams on a good hair day (for another do rent the great Canadian series Slings and Arrows, now on DVD and Blu-ray, whose first season she graced) the suits must be a little nervous as Morning Glory makes a stand against Unstoppable and Skyline, the two hardware pictures opening on Friday. After Monday’s Manhattan screening audience members were lined up in front of cameras to give their on-air testimonials, words to the effect of “It’s awesome!,” repeated for extra gusto. No, It isn’t–but it’s smart about some silly things, which is enough.
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