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article imageReview: McKellar's Newfoundland comedy may charm, but never seduces Special

By Jeff Cottrill     May 19, 2014 in Entertainment
Feel-good comedies like “The Grand Seduction” remind me of “nice guys” who try to attract women with flowers and nonstop compliments. Sure, he's harmless, he may even be sincere, but where's the edge? What makes him different from the others?
Cute but forgettable, sweet-natured but so formulaic that it probably has its own chemical recipe, Don McKellar's new film is an English-language remake of the 2003 Jean-François Pouliot crowd-pleaser La grande séduction (Seducing Doctor Lewis), about a small, isolated fishing harbour trying to get a big-city doctor to stay in town. The Grand Seduction, which opens across Canada and the U.S. on May 30, wants badly to be liked. It yearns to make you chuckle and smile, and it probably will at times. But you've seen it all before, and you'll see it again.
If I'm being hard on the movie, it's not to diss it so much as to lament how much more original and alive it could have been. As a director, McKellar is best known for the overrated but admittedly interesting Last Night, a uniquely calm take on the apocalypse genre; he's capable of fresh things. Seduction transposes the original story (by Ken Scott, who also co-wrote the new film with Michael Dowse) from Quebec to Newfoundland, and it expresses a strong affinity for the working culture there. It opens with a nostalgic tone: a narrator recalls the vibrant fishing community of his childhood, describing his father (Brendan Gleeson, who's very good) as a man who “knew his hard work made him worthy.” The film wants you to lament the plight of the community's decline, but it soon gets lost in its own self-conscious quirkiness. It's a goofy comedy that just happens to be set in a community with economic woes – rather than a movie about economic woes that's also a comedy.
Gleeson plays Murray French, an aging fisherman in Tickle Head, population 120, a remote community that, judging by the hairstyles, technology and wallpaper, appears to be stuck in the 1970s. Murray now lives off welfare, as do many other families in Tickle Head. “You don't just collect welfare; you collect shame,” he says at one point. His wife (Rhonda Rodgers) has to leave him for a bigger town to get work. The one economic hope comes from negotiations with a big corporation to build a giant factory in the area, but there's a catch: the company will construct the factory only if there's a full-time medical doctor living in the harbour.
Enter Christopher Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), a young physician who gets caught with cocaine when he arrives at the St. John's airport. (Evidently, his impressive medical education skipped the part about the harms of cocaine use. And the idiocy of smuggling drugs.) Instead of arresting him, the security guy, a Tickle Head expat, makes a deal with Dr. Lewis to be the harbour's resident doc for a month. Once Tickle Head's citizens hear of this, they find out all they can about Dr. Lewis and go to amusing lengths to try to “seduce” him into staying in the area permanently. It's quite a task, as his first impression of the community, as stated to his fiancée over the phone, is: “Medical opinion: inbreeding.”
Upon learning about the doc's love of cricket, the residents study the sport and then put together a fake match that takes place when he arrives. They tap his phone and write down every detail of his private conversations for more information. One guy pretends to like fusion jazz, Dr. Lewis' favourite music; another hides five-dollar bills where the doctor can easily find them; a restaurant begins serving curry dishes to whet his appetite for Indian specialties. Murray asks his daughter, Kathleen (Liane Balaban), to show romantic interest in Dr. Lewis, even though he's engaged back home and Kathleen isn't interested in him. That most of these people are unemployed, I suppose, explains how they have all this spare time to pull off these zany, Lucy Ricardo-esque schemes. (Gleeson scores an earned laugh when he asks Dr. Lewis: “Will you be needin' any cocaine? We're down wit' it.”)
Canuck acting heavyweight Gordon Pinsent appears in the film as Simon, an older fisherman and standard strong silent type. This Hour Has 22 Minutes' Mark Critch plays the Tickle Head banker, and CODCO vets Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones have bit parts as phone operators. You have to wonder how this cast of A-listers (by Canadian standards) was enthused by such a lightweight project – unless Critch, Walsh and Jones were sold by the Newfoundland setting – as their abilities are largely wasted. Even Pinsent spends much of his screen time making cute facial reactions and saying terse old-timer things.
Despite the notable cast, Seduction is hampered by the gross miscasting of British Columbia-born Hollywood hunk Kitsch, who isn't even remotely convincing as a doctor. His Dr. Lewis is a hip, young Brad Pitt-like bro, showing no signs of the intellectual ability nor the strict, mature professionalism that you'd imagine a fully trained doctor would have. To be fair, the script doesn't help him much; his character is a contrived pastiche of random “urban” personality traits, giving him passions for European sport, high-brow music and ethnic cuisine, plus an inexplicable taste for coke. It's as if the fictional Tickle Head residents wrote the script and created what they thought a sophisticated city-boy doctor would be like.
Balaban, who's the closest thing in the movie to a female lead, is decent in an underwritten role, but her Kathleen seems far too worldly and all-knowing to be convincing as one of the harbour residents; she's the only one without an accent, and if the movie ever states that she has travelled extensively, I missed it. There's also potential to develop Rodgers' character further, but that's cut short too. It's a very male-dominated movie, with women often unseen in Tickle Head's public goings-on, the consequential players being almost all men.
Or you could say Tickle Head itself is the movie's true protagonist; the community has a unique character that isn't like what you've seen in most mainstream movies. It's a lovely, secluded harbour full of nice and well-meaning, if crusty and uneducated, working folks with colourful speech. But most of the individual characters don't stay in your mind for long. Sometimes you sympathize with them, and sometimes you just chuckle at their wacky naiveté and down-home inventiveness at trying to fool the doc.
Does all this mean that The Grand Seduction isn't worth your time? Not necessarily. The preview audience that I saw it with seemed to like it a lot. For all I know, maybe it'll be the big breakout international comedy hit that Canada's been yearning for all these years. I'd rather wait on a better, more unpredictable movie with humour and sentiment that are less calculated and by-the-numbers.
So McKellar's movie is certainly a “nice guy”, and it might be pleasant company for a couple of hours. But can it seduce you? Or would you rather save room in your film-comedy bed for something by the next Billy Wilder?
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