Sandra Bullock hitched her career to writer and later writer-director Marc Lawrence when he scripted Forces of Nature. She stayed with him through the Miss Congeniality hits and up to Two Weeks Notice (2002). Then Bullock weaned herself from Lawrence's brand of gimmicky, wan and witless comedies and lived to stage a comeback this year.
But Bullock passed Lawrence, like a bad penny, to Hugh Grant, her co-star in Two Weeks Notice. And Grant can't seem to kick the Lawrence habit.
Did You Hear About the Morgans?, Grant's third film with Lawrence, might be his overdue intervention. Unfunny and tone-deaf, it pairs Grant with Sarah Jessica Parker, with whom he has no chemistry, and it gives neither of them anything funny to say or play.
She's Meryl Morgan, a star of the New York real-estate market. He's Paul Morgan, a rich lawyer. They have assistants (Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men and Jesse Liebman) who hate each other, too. They're separated. He's trying to get her back. But he cheated, and she's not having him.
Darned if his one shot at a reconciliation dinner doesn't end with a murder that they witness. Because the killer is on the loose, the feds ship them off: "Witness Relocation Program" slickers hiding amongst the red-state rubes of Ray, Wyo. The first people they meet are the law enforcement couple who will be their hosts, played by a twinkly Sam Elliott and a pistol-packing Mary Steenburgen.
Most of the movie is made up of pained conversations about trust between two people who don't click on any level. Between heart-to-hearts, they make tired observations about life outside of New York.
"I can't breathe," Meryl wheezes. "The air's too clean!"
The only moments that have a prayer of clicking in this fish-out-of-water comedy concern the few good actors in supporting roles — grizzled Elliott, common-sense Steenburgen and Wilford Brimley, local grump, true Westerner and hater of big-city Democrats.
Lawrence's recycled observations of the virtues of rural life, his struggles to find something funny about local "types" (an unworldly doctor and his naïve nitwit nurse) and his "grizzly encounter" scene are painful to watch. The way this witless Witness works is that the hit man tracks them down to Wyoming, but Lawrence fails to find humor or menace in that. His ineptitude extends to knowing when to end this too-predictable fiasco.
With luck, Grant, whose options on the romantic comedy front have narrowed, will finally snap out of it after this Lawrence phase. The best thing that could happen to Hugh is if nobody hears about The Morgans.