I'm loath to kick off the new year with a moan, so let me state for the record that a full hour of the romantic comedy Did You Hear about the Morgans? had passed before I glanced at my watch. In truth the concluding 40 minutes went much less swiftly, as the intermittent laughs dried up and the plot degenerated into silliness and soppiness, but up to that point the antics of Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant had reached, if not a plateau of comic excellence, at least an acceptable level of mildly amusing gaucherie.
Yes, I know, it's hardly a ringing endorsement, but then the writer-director Marc Lawrence has never pushed himself to be anything other than a jobbing schedule-filler. Hugh Grant evidently responds to him, all the same – they worked together on the so-so Music and Lyrics and the awful Two Weeks Notice – and runs through his embarrassed-Englishman schtick with aplomb. He plays Paul Morgan, who's desperately trying to save his marriage to Meryl (Sarah Jessica Parker) following the revelation of his one-night stand. So they are walking through Manhattan one evening from a failed rapprochement dinner when they witness a contract murder. The killer gets a good look at them, too, so the authorities bundle the couple for their own safety into the Witness Protection Scheme.
Their assigned bolt-hole turns out to be nowheresville, Wyoming, a tiny town where the necks are red, the valleys are green and the boots come with rhinestones on them. In other words, a perfect hell for two upscale city slickers like them. They are also houseguests of the local marshal (Sam Elliott) and his gun-toting wife (Mary Steenburgen), who've seen these spoilt urbanites before and listen to their marital bickering with the serenity of the Gods looking down on humankind from Olympus. The contrast between town and country has been teed up: would you be surprised to learn that through the innocent folksy pleasures of riding, shooting and playing bingo the Morgans inch their way towards reconciliation?
Grant and Parker, without veering a micrometre from their established personas, catch the comic rhythm and go through the motions with tolerable expertise: he gets chased by a bear and muses winningly on rural ways ("It's so quiet out here I can hear my cells dividing"), while she does her I-can't-believe-this-is-happening-to-me kvetching familiar from one C Bradshaw in a long-running TV series; indeed, I recall an episode where she goes for a weekend in the country and makes more or less the same plaintive noises – "a neurotic woodpecker", as she nicely puts it. But would it be ungallant to suggest that both of them are getting a little long in the tooth for such romantic hoopla? They look more like people trying to stave off the ghosts of middle age (and previous marriages) rather than falling out over his first-ever infidelity. The late scene at the rodeo where they disguise themselves as the front and back end of a panto horse could be a tremendous coup of self-deprecation, but one never feels sure if they're really in on the joke. I wonder if either will grow old as charmingly as Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen, whose relaxed playing feels almost like a rebuke to the star pair's babyish spats. Did You Hear about the Morgans? isn't a contemptible use of your time, but the follow-up question looms all too readily – "...and do you care?"