Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Morning Glory: Partly Cloudy

Morning Glory (2010) • View trailer for Morning Glory
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for fleeting profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang

I’ve got good news for those who’ve waited years for a smart, personable young starlet to inherit the Romantic Comedienne Throne left vacant ever since Meg Ryan flamed out after 1998’s You’ve Got Mail.

Good news, in the form of two words: Rachel McAdams.
Whether appealing to his integrity, brow-beating or begging, the perky and
persuasive Becky (Rachel McAdams) can't get Mike (Harrison Ford) to climb
off his high horse long enough to become an active participant in her
morning TV show.

She fits the job requirement to perfection, and tosses in a few charming ingredients all her own. Her fireball performance in Morning Glory can’t help being the center of attention; hands down, she’s always the most interesting person in the room.

Her career-driven character in this story is endearing despite our frequently wanting to strangle her: playfully erotic while somehow tantalizingly unapproachable; whip-smart and savvy although possessing not the slightest clue about how to put her own best foot forward. Hard-charging, yet vulnerable. Dedicated, determined, loyal and utterly oblivious to negative vibes that would send lesser mortals shrieking to a safer realm.

The “realm” in question here is the dog-eat-dog world of a fourth-ranked television morning show: the happy-chat purgatory that disgorges perky “infotainment” delivered by on-air talking heads surgically unable to stop smiling.

The modern TV creation where actual “news” long ago perished from malnutrition.

Aline Brosh McKenna’s script doesn’t dwell overmuch on network TV’s complicity in the dumbing-down of America, but the implication is felt. The game has changed because the goals have changed: Where once the industry respected and rewarded journalists who dug up and reported stories of merit and substance, and the race reflected a healthy desire to scoop everybody else with the next Watergate or Valerie Plame scandal, now it’s just a sprint to the overnight and weekly ratings … and if that means cooking segments, stupid pet tricks and sending desk anchors out in funny costumes, well, devil take the hindmost.

Becky Fuller (McAdams) is introduced while beginning her daily routine at a local morning show: a full-throttle occupation that involves rising at 1:30 a.m. in order to make pre-show meetings before going on the air at 4:30. We get the broad strokes quickly, during a blown date – “dinner” at an empty restaurant, because it’s early afternoon – when the hapless guy can’t compete with the angry chirp of her cell phone. The phrases “workaholic” and “married to the job” aren’t anywhere near strong enough for Becky; if career dedication were measurable by a thermometer, hers would burn hotter than the core of the galaxy’s biggest and brightest sun.

So, naturally, she gets downsized.

Unfazed by what she insists is a temporary setback – and despite a truly bizarre un-pep talk from her mother (in a badly directed and ineptly acted scene that seems dragged in from some lesser movie) – Becky spreads the resumes around and gets a nibble from Jerry Barnes (Jeff Goldblum, excellent as always), a producer at New York’s struggling IBS. Their morning show, “Daybreak,” has been pounded into the ratings cellar, and Barnes is desperate enough to buy into Becky’s impassioned “This show needs me as much as I need it” sales pitch. She gets the job, and of course a downstairs guard at the IBS building, upon hearing the news, gives her a look and warns, “Don’t unpack.”

Indeed, Becky’s debut at a chaotic bullpen meeting/pitch session verges on utter disaster, as she’s verbally assaulted by “story ideas” that range from the merely ridiculous to the truly inane, with a few potentially interesting concepts all but lost in the shuffle.

Ah, but watch this scene carefully: the way it’s staged by director Roger Michell, cross-cutting between Becky’s increasingly glazed expression, and the ever-tighter close-ups on those vying for her attention. This is one of those masterful “movie moments” destined to reign forever in “greatest clips” movie heaven, particularly since it has such a great payoff, with an equally impressive coda.
Unfortunately, this scene – following our equally energized introductory prologue with Becky, as she transitions from Job A to this one – sets the bar too high.

Delightful as this film often is, notwithstanding Brosh McKenna’s sharp and pungent dialogue and despite several more very, very amusing sequences, Morning Glory isn’t quite the sum of its many excellent parts. Engaging and entertaining, to be sure; fueled by McAdams’ radiant presence, absolutely.

But not … quite … great.

It’s almost as if the film itself, like “Daybreak,” can’t quite find its footing, or decide which way to go.
Despite some clever “meet cute” moments with Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson), a fellow producer at IBS, his resulting relationship with Becky neither gels nor makes sense; the two have zero chemistry and apparently no reason for becoming – or remaining – an item … and yet they do. These fitful attempts notwithstanding, this film isn’t a romantic comedy, since Becky’s only “romance” involves her job.

At the same time, other individual bits are well shaped in terms of the primary environmental dynamic: the hell-for-leather, always slightly fearful atmosphere in the chaotic “Daybreak” studio. Brosh McKenna is in her comfort zone here, having previously penned the big-screen adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada. The setting and frequently put-upon circumstances feel appropriately authentic, as are the various far-fetched ratings schemes.

(Clearly, this film gets it right, because our adjacent seat companion during Monday evening’s Sacramento screening, a longstanding veteran of local TV news himself, laughed as hard as anybody else.)

Diane Keaton is spot-on as Colleen Peck, the “Daybreak” prima-donna co-anchor who has been through too many show-runners to have much faith in Becky; either the predecessors were clueless and quickly dismissed, or talented and just as quickly hired away by a higher-ranked station. Michell wisely keeps a lid on Keaton’s occasionally shrill tendencies, so her character remains well grounded; we sense that Colleen’s frustration comes from too many previous disappointments, rather than an absence of actual go-to team spirit.

Matt Malloy is all-stops-out hilarious as Ernie, the eternally put-upon weatherman who pitches his “great story” on the history of weather vanes during every morning meeting. John Pankow is a calming presence as Lenny, Becky’s co-producer: the one person who seems able to stand back and look beyond this newcomer’s force-of-nature exterior to see the actual woman beneath.

And Goldblum, of course, is wonderful as the dry, defeated, cynical Jerry: going under for the third time, with nothing but a leaking life preserver on which to cling.

All of which brings us to Harrison Ford’s Mike Pomeroy.

Although an obvious selling point for this film, certainly the most prominent name among the top three stars, Ford’s character isn’t nearly as engaging – or funny – as he should be.

Pomeroy is a veteran “serious” newsman in the Walter Cronkite mold, with a wall full of awards and photographs to prove it. Through circumstances this script never properly addresses – why, precisely, was he fired, at some point in the past? – Pomeroy has been sidelined during the remnants of his contract. Becky, at heart a hard news junkie and a longtime fan, asks and finally blackmails Pomeroy into joining her show, as Colleen’s co-anchor.

We know the expected drill, from numerous previous films: Cranky Mike will refuse to go along or get along, ticking everybody off until the inevitable third-act thaw.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way. Ford is best as we first get to know Mike, his crusty exterior and grim horror over Becky’s proposal a hilarious counterpoint to her perky hard-sell. But as the film progresses, Ford’s one-note performance becomes less amusing, his attitude sliding from merely dour to downright sour. Frankly, he becomes cruel and unpleasant, truly living up to Adam’s insistence that Mike is “the third-worst person in the entire world.”

It reaches the point where we no longer care whether Mike achieves redemption in Brosh McKenna’s third act, because by then we’re well and truly sick of him. He’s too mean for this sort of light-hearted froth.

It’s a tough balancing act, and I’d argue that Michel has handled it better before. We remember him well for having directed the joyous Notting Hill, but the film more apt to this discussion is Venus, which boasts pitch-perfect performances from both Peter O’Toole and Jodie Whittaker. And this is the important bit: Both are essentially self-centered and unlikable people … and yet we’re drawn to them anyway.

I simply couldn’t warm up to Harrison Ford’s Mike Pomeroy, not even with Rachel McAdams insisting that I should. This isn’t a fatal flaw, and it doesn’t make Morning Glory any less entertaining on numerous levels … but it does prevent the film from deserving mention alongside newsroom/media center classics such as His Girl Friday and Broadcast News.

A game try, Becky … but, in the final analysis, I think you needed a different co-anchor … and this film needed a different co-star.

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