‘Morning Glory’: Flat souffle

November 9, 2010

What looks like a romantic comedy, plays like a romantic comedy – but lacks the laughs of a romantic comedy?

 

“Morning Glory,” the newest film from director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”), fits the description. It’s a romantic comedy in all the ways that matter except the most important: It rarely provides the humor it promises. It’s like a soufflé that never rises.

 

Not that it doesn’t try. Its rhythms, its flavor, its set-ups – they all have the look and feel of a film like “Tootsie” or, more appropriately, “Broadcast News,” the film that “Morning Glory” so desperately wants to be. The problem is writer Aline Brosh McKenna: She doesn’t know how to pull the trigger on a punchline, it seems, no matter how hard she tries.

 

That makes sense. McKenna’s most famous script was “The Devil Wears Prada,” whose best material was drawn from the book by Lauren Weisberger. More typical were her scripts for the dreadful “Three to Tango,” and the similarly humor-challenged “27 Dresses,” the Katherine Heigl dud. “Morning Glory” would seem to clinch it: “Prada” was funny because of the material – but McKenna isn’t particularly funny as a writer.

 

Not that she doesn’t have a feel for the romantic-comedy form. She just can’t craft a punchline to go with the romantic moments she weaves through the script.

 

“Morning Glory” certainly has the other assets of a solid romantic comedy: a strong cast with unexpected chemistry, dealing with material that’s actually about something. So why doesn’t it work better?

 

Rachel McAdams, one of the cutest and most likable actresses working today, plays Becky Fuller, whose lifelong dream has been to produce the “Today” show. As the film opens, she’s the ultra-upbeat and inventive producer of “Good Morning, New Jersey,” with no social life because her days start with a 3:30 a.m. alarm.

 

When her boss calls her in, she assumes it’s because she’s gotten the call up to the majors – the network. Instead, she’s been downsized, in favor of a newbie who has an MBA and can find ways to save the station money, in addition to producing the early morning show.

 

Becky, however, is no quitter. She floods the area stations and networks with resumes, making endless peppy follow-up calls, until lightning strikes: She is summoned to the office of the executive of the network, IBS, that has the lowest-ranked morning show, “Daybreak.” The executive, Jerry Barnes (Jeff Goldblum), tells her she’s about to take command of the Titanic and predicts her quick demise.

 

Here’s McKenna’s idea of a joke: This show is so terrible and underfunded that even the doorknobs don’t work. Laugh? I thought I’d die.

 

Instead, she hits the ground running – firing the obnoxious co-anchor (Ty Burrell) and implementing a variety of ideas. Her brightest one: bringing in a veteran newsman to co-anchor with the show’s long-time diva, Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton).

 

Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) is built up as the equivalent of a Dan Rather or a Tom Brokaw, someone who was a hard-charging reporter and a respected anchorman for a number of years, until the cold-cash facts of ratings – which is what TV news has become (make no mistake – it’s true of most newspapers these days, too) – meant that he was dumped for a younger model. These days, he sits home, collecting a big paycheck, chomping at the bit, without anything meaningful to do.

 

Becky tries asking him nicely, offering him a chance to get back in the game – if a different part of the game. Pomeroy, however, refuses, citing the blend of news and silliness that defines morning shows – so she finds the clause in his contract that allows her to force him into the morning anchor chair.

 

Even as she’s dealing with a pain-in-the-ass Pomeroy, Becky is also actively engaged in a burgeoning relationship – with a magazine news-hour producer named Adam (Patrick Wilson), who chases her, much to her surprise. He also warns her off of Pomeroy, calling him “the third worst person in the world” (No. 1 is Kim Jong Il; No. 2 is Angela Lansbury – these are the jokes, folks).

 

Frustrated with Mike’s intransigence and facing a deadline in bringing the show’s ratings up, Becky pulls out the stops – and throws every ratings-grabbing gimmick into the mix that she can think of. Will it be enough? Will she win over the crusty Pomeroy and get him to mesh with the rest of the show?

 

What do you think? The question isn’t who comes out ahead (although “Broadcast News” certainly found ways to approach the same equation – serious news vs. sensationalism and fluff – and make the ending surprising). The real question is whether the romance works – less the actual one between Becky and Adam than the platonic one between Becky and Pomeroy.

 

And again, Michell nearly makes it work: the aggressively likable McAdams and the ultra-crusty Ford, as the snooty news snob, have a fascinating friction that keeps this film watchable.

 

What it doesn’t have is sufficient wit. It’s as if McKenna went with the first joke she could think of every time. There’s no sense of the writing being honed or massaged to make it a little better. For McKenna – and Michell – close enough apparently was good enough.

 

But it’s not. As enticing as McAdams is, as gruff as Ford can be, as straight-shooting as Keaton is – the laughs are too infrequent for this film to qualify as a successful romantic comedy. Romantic? Sure. A love letter to Manhattan and the TV industry? No doubt.

 

But making a romantic comedy that suffers from a deficiency of actual comedy – that’s a serious problem. And it denies the glory to “Morning Glory.”

 

 

 

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