“When I look at you, I just feel regret and sadness and a deep desire to see you suffer intense pain.” When Meryl (Sarah Jessica Parker) makes this announcement to Paul (Hugh Grant), he winces. And he should: it’s a terrible, small, and bland thing to say, even to an estranged cheating husband who oh so tragically broke her heart.
Still, you can sympathize. It’s only a few minutes into Did You Hear About the Morgans?, and already Paul and Meryl are deeply annoying. By now they’ve gone through the set-up, which is to say they’re established as high-powered professionals—he’s a lawyer of some kind and she’s got her very own boutique real estate firm—whose separation making both of them miserable. He’s been sending exotic gifts, ice sculptures and stars named after her, and she’s unable to forgive or move on, evidenced when she agrees to have dinner and even walk home with him in the rain, even knowing from before she starts that she won’t take him back.
Thank goodness their date is interrupted by a murder. Or, not so much interrupted as extended, as they’re whisked into a witness protection program and sent to Nowheresville, Wyoming. Now they’re stuck with each other until the feds catch the assassin (Michael Kelly). Judging by the team’s initial ineptitude, which leads directly to dead agents, the Morgans’ reunion could last a lot longer than anyone wants.
Certainly they’re relocated longer than their hosts might have anticipated. U.S Marshall Clay (Sam Elliott) and his gun-totin’ wife Emma (Mary Steenburgen) are glad to bring a couple new protected witness into their cabin, a service they’ve been performing for some years. As supremely laidback and nonjudgmental as Clay may be, he does become exasperated with the Morgans, who argue late into the night, sneak phone calls they’re not allowed to make, and don’t appreciate his wife’s cooking (Meryl is a vegetarian). “These two are worse than Vito the Butcher,” he complains, Elliot’s signature-laconic delivery not quite saving this feeble attempt at comedy.
As Meryl and Paul spend time in fresh air under bright-starred big skies, contending with grizzly bears or learning to shoot tin cans, they also—of course—come to see each other anew. While the movie assumes that Hugh Grant’s usual self-presentation—that apparently irresistible combination of cockiness and sheepishness—is enough to warrant Meryl’s melting. Paul takes up jogging with her in order to spend time together, she reveals her yearning for children (she reveals this repeatedly, sighing over neighbors’ babies and admiring children’s photos n the doctor’s office). They dance together at the big hoedown. And all the while the film cuts back to NYC, so you can see the killer ferreting out their whereabouts.
In and of itself, this formula is surely tedious, and it doesn’t help that everyone looks mostly bored as they rehearse it. As the cityfolk discover the simple pleasures of horseback riding and chopping wood, the wise and patient country people observe and advise. None of these interactions is precisely convincing, perhaps least of all Meryl’s exchange with the sheriff (Wilford Brimley). When she asks him not to smoke near their dinner table, he asserts, “This is god-fearing American country. We don’t take kindly to outsiders telling us how to live.”
Of course they don’t. And when the outsiders suggest they’re also patriots, sort of, the movie alludes briefly to all that debate over red and blue state values, real and not-real Americas (Meryl also whines that Emma-with-a-gun is Sarah Palin). For a moment, the movie almost seems to have a point to make about narrow visions, its own included. But no. This is not the place for political or philosophical substance, or even vaguely clever jokes. This is a place, complete with rodeo bulls and clowns and pretty girl trick riders, where no one has an original thought. And yes, you do feel regret and sadness.