Cuddly, yet gruff, Irish character actor Brendan Gleeson was made for roles like this.
He thrives at playing the everyman and flourishes even more so while in the midst of an indie film. He seems perfectly comfortable sporting worn-out work boots and beat-up baseball caps. He’s absolutely believable traversing a blue collar tundra. And he seems totally at ease when he’s downing whiskey shooters at the local bar and/or ice fishing on one of area’s many frozen lakes.
In other words, he’s perfectly cast as briny townie Murray French in the feel-good comedy “The Grand Seduction.”
Now, everything I just said about Gleeson, think the opposite for his co-star, beefy action star Taylor Kitsch.
So, why does this film work so well?
Well, for one thing, it never strays too far from its core beliefs and it doesn’t try to overstep its boundaries. It’s as if novice director Don McKellar and screenwriter Michael Dowse (director of the criminally underrated “Goon”) realizes that the basic premise of this film is not terribly inventive, but he doesn’t seem to have a problem with this. It’s a simple yarn that’s been repeated over and over again throughout the history of storytelling — a fish-out-of-water tale in which youth meets experience and city slickers stare down the barrel of good ol’ county living.
Okay, okay, let me just cut to the chase. It’s VERY similar to the 1991 Michael J. Fox comedic vehicle “Doc Hollywood.” So, even if this movie is far from original and even goes so far as to borrow from an easily forgettable picture from the early 90’s, again I ask– why does it work so well?
I’ll tell you why.
Because in a summer full of special effects-laden “event movies” full of havoc-wreaking giant lizards, time-traveling mutants and X-Men (that was a Tom Cruise dig, by the way), not to mention all the animated flicks and star-powered comedies, movies like “The Grand Seduction” seem to get lost in the shuffle and this isn’t always such a bad thing. Just like Kitsch’s character in the film, sometimes you have to realize you’re lost in order to find the true meaning behind things.
Too deep of an explanation? Okay, how about this answer then. “The Grand Seduction” is a genuinely funny and likable film and really that’s all you can ask for from an art house comedy that’s released during the big, bad summer movie season.
“The Grand Seduction” comes off like a quaint little folksy fairytale set in a remote fishing haven in Northeast Canada.
Even the name of the setting (Tickle Head, which I thought was just a ridiculous name for a town… until I found out it was based on a real place called Tickle Cove — my bad) invokes a fidgety kind of rural charm. Gleeson’s character of Murray French is down-on-his-luck and unemployed. He’s the kind of guy whose only source of income is cashing in the welfare checks of deceased relatives. In fact, most of the 100+ inhabitants of Tickle Head are unemployed and on some sort of government subsidy. So, when Murray learns of the emasculating news that his wife has just decided to take a job in a nearby city to make ends meet, he decides that enough is enough.
The timing couldn’t be more perfect for Murray to finally get off the schneid, as he learns at a town meeting that a group of prospective businessman are thinking of opening a factory in Tickle Head. Of course a factory would solve the town’s financial problems AND give Murray a newfound sense of purpose, but there’s a catch. The mayor of the town divulges that Tickle Head must have a resident doctor in town, which it doesn’t, in order for the factory to be green lit. Oh yeah, and the town must have a minimum number of residents living in it, which it is also lacking. Bummer, huh? Distraught from this new piece of information, the mayor decides to pack up his family and head out to the city for greener pastures, where he soon finds a job working customs at the airport. So, now Tickle Head has no mayor AND seemingly no chance at getting the much-needed factory built. Things aren’t looking good for Murray and company.
Enter Dr. Paul Lewis (yup, that would be Kitsch); a big city plastic surgeon with an equal fondness for the elegant game of cricket AND the powdery substance known as cocaine. In fact, he loves both of these things so much that he gets busted at airport customs with a bag of yayo. I’ll give you one guess as to where he’s coming from. Why yes, he IS returning from a cricket tournament. I’d give you another guess as to which customs officer made this bust, but I didn’t think you’d even need it.
So, by this point you’ve probably realized that the former mayor of Tickle Head was the one who caught Dr. Lewis with the nose candy and I’ll bet you’ve already figured out where the story is going, but I’ll lay it out for you anyway. Instead of turning him in and ruining his life and career, the former mayor makes Dr. Lewis an offer he can’t refuse… literally. In exchange for his freedom, Dr. Lewis has to take up residency as the town physician in… you guessed it (boy you’re smart)… Tickle Head.
Let the grand seduction of Dr. Paul Lewis begin!
Sorry, was that TOO literal?
Based on “La Grande Seduction” (aka: “Seducing Doctor Lewis”) — a 2003 film written by hot French-Canadian import Ken Scott (one of Scott’s other projects, “Starbuck,” recently received the Hollywood remake into the Vince Vaughn vehicle “Delivery Man”) — this adaptation succeeds due to its understanding of the spirit of togetherness and community. Yes, it does indeed have its fair share of humorous moments, but they never breakthrough into the tricky realm of slapstick humor or physical comedy. Most of the jokes are presented on a conceptual level, which therefore adds a layer
of intelligence and class to the proceedings. There’s never a groan-inducing moment where a character falls out of a boat or is struck on the noggin by a falling object and the film is all the better for it.
That being said, there is quite a bit of the bait-and-switch variety of humor in “The Grand Seduction.” For example, when Dr. Lewis first comes to Tickle Head, the townsfolk want to welcome him in the “grandest” way possible. So, after learning about his love for cricket they decide to research the complicated sport in order to ramp up his affinity for the town. In layman’s terms, they want to trick him into thinking that cricket is a major piece of Tickle Head’s cultural puzzle, so he will permanently stay and become their doctor.
This fairly straightforward premise leads to a hilarious scene in which the good doctor is being ferried into the town on a small skiff (with Murray as his guide mind you) when he notices what seems to be an impromptu game of cricket being played on a pristine, lush mountainside.
“Is that cricket they’re playing?,” the doctor asks. “Why yes, it’s the championship game,” Murray replies with a sheepish grin. “I love cricket,” the now starry-eyed doc retorts.
Of course, Dr. Lewis wants to stop and check out the game for himself, which then leads to additional hilarity since none of the cricket-playing townsfolk actually have a clue as to how to PLAY the game, they’re all just pretending. It’s laugh-out-loud funny to witness the faux cricket players try to scramble around and fake their way through an intricate, complex game like cricket, only to panic and simply declare a winner after Dr. Lewis takes all that time to dock his boat and hike all the way up to the top of the cliff.
The whole cricket thing is tackled again, but this time it’s in a bar setting. The bar patrons, who are STILL pretending to enjoy themselves some cricket, stare with dumbfounded looks on their faces as Dr. Lewis pounds down some beers while a game is on the tube. It’s pretty funny when he turns to one of the townsfolk to make an analytical comment about the game and the guy just grunts and nods in agreement.
It’s even funnier when Dr. Lewis gets up to use the bathroom and the channel is immediately switched to some good ol’ fashioned Canadian hockey. As the whole bar is whipped into a frenzy due to some typical hockey action, Dr. Lewis hears the roar of the crowd from the bathroom and assumes something important just happened in his beloved cricket match. So, after he speeds up the “process” and hurries back to his barstool to find out what has just occurred, the look on the faces of the bar patrons (who’ve just reluctantly changed the station back to cricket again) is classic. It’s akin to the look
The storyline involving the townsfolk and the company men from the factory tends to work as well. As the whole bar/TV/cricket match gag is being played out, Murray is simultaneously showing the businessmen around the town of Tickle Head. This leads to a cute gag in which every single patron at the bar (Dr. Lewis not included) gets up from their stool and moves, en masse, to the town church in order to fool the factory reps that Tickle Head has twice as many people living in it.
Basically, one of the reps takes a headcount at the bar and comes up with 80 (or so) people. So, when Murray shuffles the uppity group out of the bar and offers to take them to the church, where the rest of the town (wink-wink) is supposedly partaking in some bingo, he manages to take them on the “scenic route.” This gives the townies just enough time to make it to the church, change their wardrobe, setup an off the cuff bingo game, and essentially fool the reps into thinking they’re a whole different set of residents: e.g. the town is twice as big. Their plan ends up working and so too does the gag.
It’s moments such as this that tend to make or break movies like “The Grand Seduction.” Moviegoers will find these films to be either charming or… dare I say, cute. See, the word “cute” is an unmistakable four-letter word that can cause some of the more hardened viewers to be turned off. Normally, I’d consider myself to be one of these people, but for some reason or another, “The Grand Seduction” never seemed to reach that particular cutesy level for me. I found it to be a warm and inviting comedy that emits nostalgia and authenticity at every turn.
This is mostly due to the performances by the highly capable cast, which is led by the always fantastic Gleeson. Make no mistake, no matter what kind of billing the more popular Kitsch receives, this is Gleeson’s movie. He also gets quite a bit of help from longtime industry vet Gordon Pinsent, who plays Murray’s best friend and fellow curmudgeon Simon.I also ended up being pleasantly surprised by Kitsch, who doesn’t “wow” in his role as Dr. Lewis, but does manage to hold
his own amongst such a talented group of experienced actors. Actually, I was really surprised that Kitsch had the ability to tone it down for a small indie film such as this. I’ve become so accustomed to his work in action flicks and genre pics like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” “Savages,” “Battleship,” “John Carter” and “Lone Survivor” that I forgot he showed some real acting chops during his stint on “Friday Night Lights.” In addition, Gleeson and Kitsch display some real comedic chemistry, especially during a particularly giggle-inducing moment in which Murray tries to let Dr. Lewis know that he might be able to get him some (touch the side of your nose) “party favors” during his stay in town, if you catch my drift. I guess he figured that if the doctor had some cricket AND some coke he’d most likely make Tickle Head his home. Ahhh, you gotta love small town folk.
There was one glaring negative I picked out while watching the film. I wasn’t exactly a huge fan of the romance between Dr. Lewis and local postal worker Kathleen (Liane Balaban). Unlike Gleeson and Kitsch, Balaban and Kitsch seemed to have very little (if any) chemistry with one another. To me, Balaban doesn’t radiate onscreen like most actresses do. In fact, she gives off a plain vibe. This works in her favor in other character-like roles, but as the romantic lead, not so much. She also appears to be much older than Kitsch (even though they’re really only a year apart) and it creates a strange creepiness that I just couldn’t get over. I know this might come off as mean and detrimental towards Balaban, but don’t get me wrong, she IS a talented actress. She just doesn’t strike me as someone that a Hollywood hunk like Taylor Kitsch would be interested in. Brooklyn Decker, I see the appeal. Blake Lively, I get. Lynn Collins, check. Liane Balaban, ehhh, not so much. I’m just saying, believability is the name of the game, right?
In the midst of all of these GRAND summer films that will try to SEDUCE you with their CGI monsters and fantastic set pieces, indie gems like this tend to get kicked around and forgotten. Do yourself a favor, deviate from your normal Saturday night multiplex, set your GPS to find your local art house theater, and purchase yourself a ticket to see “The Grand Seduction.”
Not every film you see this summer needs to be a “100%, full throttle adrenaline rush.”