'Morning Glory,' in need of a wake-up call

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; C01

Rachel McAdams labors mightily to be adorable in "Morning Glory," a fitfully funny romantic comedy set in the weary, bleary vineyards of morning TV. McAdams gives her vivacious all to play Becky Fuller, a hardworking producer at an obscure New Jersey show who's unexpectedly canned as the film opens. Down but not out, the ever-sharp Becky carpet bombs Manhattan with her resume, eventually landing a gig executive-producing a bottom-rated network morning news show at the flagging IBS network.

Those initials will, for some sufferers, call to mind irritable bowel syndrome, which serves as a suitable cue for Becky's chief foil in "Morning Glory": the curmudgeonly news veteran Michael Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), whom she dragoons into co-hosting the "Daybreak" program alongside aging diva Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton). Like a self-pitying, saturnine lion in winter, Ford brings his gruffest game face to Pomeroy, who's won "eight Peabodys, one Pulitzer" and countless Emmys and despises all the infotainment soft news that Becky's generation represents.

Noting that half the people who watch "Daybreak" have lost their remote, and the other half is waiting for a nurse to turn them over, Pomeroy barks and swats, hoping to scare the newbie away. But Becky keeps popping back with an encouraging word, ready smile and what Pomeroy derisively calls her "repellent moxie."

That's one of the best lines in "Morning Glory," which despite an appealing premise and terrific stars, veers so wildly in tone that it never settles into a story worth believing, let alone remembering. "Morning Glory" screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna scripted the tartly observant "The Devil Wears Prada" and the lamentable "27 Dresses." This outing falls somewhere between the two, never levitating to "Prada's" heights of arch comedy but still managing to burble along with occasional bursts of cheerful lunacy.

A moment arrives in "Morning Glory" when Becky is ordered by her boss (Jeff Goldblum) to bring up ratings or face cancellation, and she takes the show aggressively downmarket, plopping the weatherman into all manner of physical stunts. Keaton's impeccably groomed Colleen gamely joins in, donning a fat suit and rapping with 50 Cent a series of good-naturedly amusing set pieces.

But those sequences bounce in and out just like the rest of "Morning Glory," pinballing manically with a self-conscious, disjointed rhythm. Becky pursues a romance with a fellow IBS staffer (Patrick Wilson), whose scenes hew to the film's conveniently random timing; their inevitable breakup arrives precipitously, with her erupting suddenly over Chinese food. The moment feels as forced as the rest of "Morning Glory," where precious little rings true, from Becky appearing out of nowhere to offer Pomeroy a job while he's out pheasant hunting, to her donning a diaphanous cocktail dress she wears for an important job interview. At one point, when it looks like Becky might leave "Daybreak," director Roger Michell throws in a sentimental montage of her life at the office, and you realize how little we've come to know the characters she's supposedly going to miss so much.

It's somehow significant and ineffably sad that "Morning Glory" should open the same week that Jill Clayburgh died. In many ways, Becky is a direct descendant of the characters Clayburgh was famous for playing -- women at loose ends in Manhattan, trying to make sense of work, love, autonomy and their ambivalence about it all. But the filmmakers don't give Becky much time for 1970s-era self-reflection. Her answer to nearly every obstacle seems simply to jump up and down a little bit more perkily, pull her bangs nervously over her eyes or sputteringly call Pomeroy "a terrible person." She stops just short of stamping her foot and pouting, Shirley Temple-style.

Of course, Becky's closest cinematic relative is Holly Hunter's lovably neurotic Jane Craig in "Broadcast News." But to compare McAdams's ditzy, meaningless mannerisms to Hunter crying alone at her desk before getting on with it is to realize how far movies have deviated from recognizable reality. Even Mary Tyler Moore's sunny but vulnerable Mary Richards or Tina Fey's Liz Lemon seem more fleshily real than Becky, who regularly runs to the Central Park reservoir in Christian Louboutin pumps to show her boss new ratings numbers -- because that backdrop looks better than an office.

The filmmakers missed a rich opportunity in choosing Pomeroy as Becky's chief goad and begrudging mentor; she almost never relates to Colleen, except as the receiving end of the latter's muttered zingers and put-downs. Presumably, McKenna wanted to avoid comparisons with "Prada's" Miranda Priestly and her eager assistant, but what might have happened if the two women in "Morning Glory" had been allowed actually to talk or, more radically, if Colleen were the hardheaded newshound and Pomeroy the be-plumed show pony? What rueful, funny conversations might have ensued between one actress passing the rom-com mantle to another? And where are the films that dare to give their young heroines the supreme gift of being human -- and not getting everything they want?

Morning Glory **

(102 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some sexual content including dialogue, profanity and brief drug references.

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