Did You Hear About the Morgans?

The makers of “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” probably would not consider this much of an endorsement, but here it is: It’s not THAT bad. There isn’t too much in the plot that’s aggressively stupid, it produces a few chuckles here and there, and the cast is likable. It’s not worth recommending, mind you, unless you’re at the theater and you’ve seen everything else and a screening of this starts in 10 minutes — and even then you should consider re-watching something else — but it doesn’t sink to the level of badness that you’d expect, given the premise. It’s a mere mediocrity, snatched from the jaws of awfulness.

This is the third film written and directed by Marc Lawrence, and the others, “Two Weeks Notice” and “Music and Lyrics,” also starred Hugh Grant. That seems like an odd partnership, but hey, whatever works. This time, Grant plays Paul Morgan, a New York lawyer who has recently separated from his real-estate broker wife, Meryl (Sarah Jessica Parker), due to his infidelity. Paul is deeply sorry for the one-time mistake and wants to reconcile, but Meryl is still hurt.

Then, wouldn’t you know it, just as Paul is making some progress in getting Meryl to forgive him, they both witness a murder and most go into the witness protection program. Isn’t that always the way? At first they stay in New York, with round-the-clock protection by law-enforcement officers, but it turns out the hitman (Michael Kelly) is more capable and savvy than the U.S. marshals, so the Morgans will have to change their names and leave the state altogether.

Their destination is Ray, Wyo., a tiny hick town in the middle of nowhere, the type of place chosen for maximum irony by screenwriters when two city-slickers need to hide. The town has posters warning citizens how to react if they encounter bears! There’s a Costco-like store that the Morgans have never even HEARD of, much less been to, on account of never having left New York City! Meryl is a vegetarian, but all they eat in Wyoming is meat! I reckon these folks are in for a lot of surprises and shenanigans and hijinks and what-have-you!

Clay Wheeler (Sam Elliott), the local sheriff, and his rifle-toting wife, Emma (Mary Steenburgen), are the Morgans’ hosts. The Wheelers are hospitable, amused by the Morgans’ ignorance of small-town things and a little perturbed by their constant bickering. Luckily, there’s a good chance that the experience of roughing it in Wyoming for a week will help the Morgans rekindle their romance (spoiler alert!). Meanwhile, their respective assistants (Elisabeth Moss and Jesse Liebman) are back in Manhattan covering for their bosses’ absence, while the hitman tries to find out where they’ve disappeared to, et cetera.

Grant is charming and self-effacing, as usual, as Paul, the glib partner in the marriage, the one with a sense of humor. I wasn’t keeping track, but I think every time I laughed it was at something he said. Meryl isn’t too different from Parker’s “Sex and the City” character, though she’s more uptight and doesn’t talk quite as much about clothes. Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen, both fine character actors, are a welcome breath of fresh air as the Wheelers. For some reason Wilford Brimley is in town, too, probably to compete against Elliott for Biggest, Scariest Mustache.

The obvious, fish-out-of-water, “Why can’t I find a Starbucks??” jokes aren’t laid on too thick, but Lawrence doesn’t do much to establish any of the locals (other than the Wheelers) as interesting characters, either. He seems intent on being neither realistic nor over-the-top ridiculous, settling for a bland, inoffensive middle ground where the Morgans gradually bond with the townsfolk. As is generally the case, we get a heapin’ helpin’ of condescending messages about how small towns are pure and wise and city folks could learn a lot from them if they’d just put down their dang cell phones and lattes and listen. You know who makes movies with that kind of message? People who have never lived in a small town. I’m just sayin’.

It’s odd that so much time is spent dissecting the Morgans’ marital problems, considering this is a light comedy and those are weighty issues. The relationship-focused scenes tend not to be humorous, but they’re not deep or insightful, either. They are obligatory: The real reason the movie has deposited the Morgans in Hickville is so they can fix their marriage, so they might as well get on with it. But that’s not what we came here to see, is it? We came for rural escapades and pleasant tomfoolery. When the movie sticks to that stuff, it’s not too bad.

C+ (1 hr., 43 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, a little very mild sexuality.)