It’s easy to grasp the appeal of a movie like The Grand Seduction from the point-of-view of Taylor Kitsch, and/or his agent. After a well-received stint on the popular television version of Friday Night Lights, Kitsch was Hollywood-minted as the Next Big Thing, and cast in a string of high-profile studio projects. Then he watched as his two big screen leading man introductions, John Carter and Battleship, were each delivered stillborn within a couple months of one another. Critically derided, they were two of 2012’s biggest domestic box office flops—a fact that surely made it easier to hand the role of Gambit, a character Kitsch portrayed in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, to Channing Tatum for a stand-alone spin-off movie that will be produced later this year.
So The Grand Seduction sort of represents Kitsch’s Kwai-Chang-Caine/wandering-the-Earth phase, if you will—it was the first film he shot in the wake of the fallout of those aforementioned bombs, prior to reteaming with Peter Berg for Lone Survivor. And it’s an odd, twee, character-based slice of rah-rah community dramedy and uplift in which he doesn’t quite fit. But there’s a passably engaging subtextual layer of intrigue to help pass the time if one mentally squints and endeavors to put themselves in Kitsch’s headspace while he was filming two summers ago, playing a character banished to occupational purgatory against his will.
A remake of the 2003 French-Canadian film Seducing Doctor Lewis, The Grand Seduction unfolds in Ticklehead Cove, a rundown fishing village in Newfoundland, Canada, where almost all of the scant 125 residents rely on welfare checks to get by. When the town’s mayor up and leaves, serial loafer Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) fills the power vacuum with more of a shrug than anything else. They’re told there’s the chance of a petrochemical company building a new repurposing plant, which would mean jobs for all, but the ultra-isolated community needs two things in order to help make this happen—a permanent general practitioner, plus a $100,000 bribe for the company official (Pete Soucy) in charge of selecting the site.
When Dr. Paul Lewis (Kitsch), an American plastic surgeon, gets pinched with some cocaine at an airport, Ticklehead’s ex-mayor-turned-security-guard blackmails him into one month of indentured servitude. Murray, meanwhile, spearheads an elaborate scheme to try to make Paul fall in love with their burgh, and want to stay. Deploying varying levels of surveillance (the community that wiretaps together stays together?) and subterfuge, Murray gins up a father-son mentorship and forces the entire village to abandon hockey and learn how to play cricket, Paul’s favorite sport. As the month ticks away, however, the question remains—can this illusion last, and should it?
It’s readily apparent right out of the gate that The Grand Seduction is a movie that’s going to play loose (read: false) with timeframes and character motivations and such, just in the name of whatever works scene to scene. There’s a lot of fidelity to the original source material, much to the detriment of this adaptation. (Cricket?) The cobbled-together script, credited to Ken Scott and Michael Dowse, seems to misappropriate a lot of its time and energy; it’s never a good sign when one can invent more interesting scenarios on the fly while watching a movie. Director Don McKellar (substituting for Scott, who penned the original film and was set to direct this when, ironically, his movie Starbuck was picked up for an American remake, which would turn into Delivery Man) abets this tack, opting for lackadaisically staged scenes that frequently only scratch the surface of any conflict.
The Grand Seduction is kind of sweet in patches and generally harmless enough, especially for those who are predisposed to favor Waking Ned Devine-type baubles that exist at the intersection of Quaint Avenue and Shenanigans Street. Rather thankfully, the movie doesn’t dig too deeply into the cheap, tradeoff romance Murray attempts to facilitate for Paul with post office worker Kathleen (Liane Balaban), which is a complete nonstarter. And yet there it is in the end, of course, shoehorned in if for no other reason than because, you know, feelings.
Most pointedly, though, the film cries out for crisper characterizations and sharper definition throughout. The cricket fakery is mildly amusing, but it’s sporadically interwoven and there’s no mined tension in Paul’s relationship with Murray. Plus a story strand in which Murray and his friend, Simon (Gordon Pinsent), slowly bend the local banker to their bribery plot is slow-developing, taking away time from the main narrative focus.
Gleeson trots out his well-worn, avuncular grump persona, here with a thick working class accent to drive home the movie’s square-jawed, Everyman self-determination. Kitsch, meanwhile, is neither good nor bad. He just seems completely out of place—a scrubbed, polished, professional mark-hitter air-dropped into an aimless Indieville for which he is ill-prepared. A smarter, better movie could have mined his apartness and mounting bewilderment for something more unique and memorable. In the flabby condition in which it’s presented, however, The Grand Seduction just goes through the motions before finally coasting to its dubiously earned requisite happy ending. It flirts a lot, but fails.
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy and Magill’s Cinema Annual, among other outlets, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.
Director: Don McKellar
Writers: Michael Dowse, Ken Scott
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Brendan Gleeson, Gordon Pinsent, Mark Critch, Matt Watts, Liane Balaban, Pete Soucy, Cathy Jones, Rhonda Rodgers
Release Date: May 30, 2014 (limited)