"Seducing Dr. Lewis" has the cozy, genteel warmth of a well-worn blanket. This folksy comedy about the quirky denizens of a small town joins such recent hits as "Amelie" and "Waking Ned Devine" in aspiring to, but not quite achieving, the subtle alloy of atmosphere, drama and humor as the all-time best of the genre, "Local Hero." If "Seducing Dr. Lewis" also won't prove to be as timeless as that 1983 classic, it can still offer some quietly amusing respite in the dog days of a bombastic summer at the multiplex.
Directed by first-time filmmaker Jean-Francois Pouliot, "Seducing Dr. Lewis" stars Raymond Bouchard as Germain Lesage, the mayor of Ile-St.-Marie-la-Mauderne, a tiny (fictional) island off the coast of Quebec. Once a thriving fishing village, whose heyday Germain recounts in a delightfully mythologized preamble to the film's main story, St. Marie has lately fallen on hard times. Her sons and daughters make their regular pilgrimages not to the sea but to the local post office, where they collect their welfare checks. Humiliated, impoverished and altogether beaten down, the villagers have only one hope, a plastics company that has promised to consider building a factory on the island. But to qualify, the townspeople need to prove St. Marie has something it doesn't: a doctor.
At this point, the ever-resourceful Germain, along with his sidekick Steve (Bruno Blanchet, resembling a modern-day Peter Lorre) and some willing co-conspirators, sets out to recruit a physician by sending fliers to medical offices in Montreal, promising an escape from the contemporary anxieties of big-city life. No takers, but then fate -- with the help of a coincidence involving a former islander -- intervenes. Soon Dr. Christopher Lewis (David Boutin) is making the boat journey from the mainland, for what he thinks will be a month-long stay on the island, doing community service. Germain and his friends now have four weeks to persuade Dr. Lewis to stay for good. Tapping his phone to discover his likes and dislikes, they fashion a personalized playground tailored to Lewis's tastes, a scheme that includes a village-wide (and very fake) love for cricket, Steve bravely professing an interest in fusion jazz and Germain arranging for the placement of a frozen fish on the doctor's hook during one of their frequent fishing outings.
Blithely accepting all this strange behavior, Dr. Lewis eventually falls under St. Marie's elaborately staged spell. But the emotional stakes get higher when Germain goes too far in his efforts. At this point, what might have been another toothless and predictable series of cliches about wily but inherently worthy rubes outfoxing a city slicker becomes a story about characters viewers can actually care about.
"Seducing Dr. Lewis" works for many reasons: Ken Scott's unforced, never-too-sweet script, Pouliot's detailed, unfussy direction, a thoroughly believable cast and enough feeling to make the story's more fanciful elements digestible. Most important, the film has a terrific supporting character in St. Marie herself, portrayed by the real Canadian island of Harrington Harbour (pop. 300). This collection of charming houses and rickety boardwalks, nestled within the islands and gunmetal-gray chop of remote northern Quebec, was reportedly too pretty to play a town as down on its heels as St. Marie. The producers had to distress it a bit to make it work. Even without its makeup on, this gorgeous place hits its marks every time in a movie that depends as much on the scenery as on story and characters for its understated charm.
Seducing Dr. Lewis (109 minutes, in English and French with subtitles, at Visions Bar Noir) is not rated. It contains mild language.