Stop me if you've heard this one before.
A blue-eyed blonde in her early twenties is getting married in an Edenic Mediterranean hideaway. Pierce Brosnan jets in, wearing a linen shirt with the top three buttons undone, and the bride's mother goes all gooey at the sight of his chest hair. True, the sun-kissed resort in Love Is All You Need is in Italy rather than Greece, and nobody murders any Abba songs – although "That's Amore" is heard more times than should be legal – but it's impossible to see the film without assuming that its Danish director, Susanne Bier, saw Mamma Mia! and decided to cash in.
Still, even if Bier's fairy-light-festooned, Mills & Boon fantasy deserves to be arrested for forgery, it's sweet and sensitive enough for us to let it off with a caution. And considering that romantic comedies are dominated by frat-age Americans, it's a gratifying change whenever the star-crossed lovers have been around the block, and have the waistlines and frown lines to prove it. Brosnan's character was widowed 20 years ago, and he's been buried in his Copenhagen-based fruit-and-veg empire ever since, while the bride's mother (Trine Dyrholm) is a breast-cancer survivor who has just caught her husband on the settee with a woman younger than their daughter.
When Brosnan and Dyrholm stroll through the lemon groves abutting his Sorrento villa, they don't stray too far from Mamma Mia! territory, but they're sufficiently battered and bruised to seem like human beings we can care about, an impression deepened by the film's unhurried pacing and post-Dogme handheld camerawork. The last time Brosnan watched his love interest stride out of the ocean it was Halle Berry in a bikini. This time it's Dyrholm with a bald head and a mastectomy scar.
In recent years, there's been a wave of satirical comedy dramas in which hunky actors play silky-smooth spokesmen for corporate wickedness. The sub-genre got started with Jason Reitman's Thank You For Smoking and Up In The Air, it continued with Love and Other Drugs, and now comes Promised Land (107 mins, 15 ***), directed by Gus Van Sant, and co-written by its star, Matt Damon, who worked with Van Sant on Good Will Hunting and Gerry.
Damon and Frances McDormand travel around rural America at the behest of an energy company, talking the residents into signing over their land for fracking, i.e. extracting natural gas from deep beneath the soil. Damon's own farming background and boy-next-door charm make him a whizz at this job, but his sales pitch goes down badly in one small town when a science teacher disputes his rosy picture of fracking's benefits. And things get trickier with the arrival of an environmentalist (John Krasinski, also Damon's co-writer) who's even more fresh-faced and affable than he is.
In a Hollywood landscape of superheroes and secret agents, it's refreshing to see a grounded political film about real people with real-world concerns. And Promised Land promises at first to be one of the more rewarding ones. It's at its best when Damon is frothing with contempt for anyone who refuses to take the energy company's dollar –daring stuff for an actor who ranks alongside James Stewart and Tom Hanks in the league table of the movies' premier Nice Guys.
But if those scenes give us a glimpse of the tough and challenging issue drama which Promised Land might have been, the rest of the film is far more laid back. It ambles along, stopping to take in the scenery, and devoting much of its running time to Damon's flirtation with Rosemarie DeWitt, one of those attractive yet conveniently single teachers who crop up in every film and TV series about a city slicker visiting the sticks. No story of impossible choices in a ruined economy should be quite as mellow as this.