A band of Newfoundland fishermen march down to the harbor, carrying lanterns. It’s that early part of the morning that still qualifies as night. They set off from the pier in unison, work all day in unison, unload the day’s catch in unison, and then go home and screw their wives in unison, until, finally, the town erupts in a chorus of simultaneous post-coital sighs. Cut to 50 years later, as the sons of the fishermen—now lumpy and middle-aged—get out of bed mid-morning and drift down toward the harbor post office. They pick up their welfare checks, cash them, and then spend the rest of the day getting piss-drunk.
So opens The Grand Seduction, a confused, toothless comedy about a tiny fishing community whose residents lie, bluff, and bribe their way into a lucrative oil company contract. The movie is mixed-message soup: Its central theme—something about how work, no matter how hard or demeaning, gives people purpose—never gels with its cynical and opportunistic worldview, resulting in a disingenuous small-town satire, eager to take cheap jabs at provincial life, but unwilling to tear into its core values.
The setting is the harbor town of Tickle Head, population 120, most of them unemployed. Tickle Head’s last remaining optimist, Murray French (Brendan Gleeson), has pinned all of his hopes on the construction of a petroleum repurposing facility; however, to bid on the contract, the town needs a doctor. Enter Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), a plastic surgeon who gets caught with cocaine by an airport security officer who happens to be Tickle Head’s former mayor. Paul is let go under the condition that he accepts a one-month assignment as the town doctor. In anticipation of Paul’s arrival, Murray marshals the town’s population into a scheme to fool the doctor into staying—the titular grand seduction. They tap Paul’s phone line, manipulate him emotionally, and pretend to share his ultra-specific interests in cricket and jazz fusion.
The Grand Seduction’s humor brings to mind ’90s video-store ubiquities like Waking Ned Devine and The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain—middle-brow comedies given a patina of respectability by accented dialogue and canny distribution. Helming his first feature in nearly a decade, McKellar—an actor best known for writing, directing, and starring in the 1998 end-of-the-world romance Last Night—brings little of the quirky personality that characterized his earlier directorial work. There are jokes involving church bingo and old ladies listening in on phone sex, “funny” Newfie accents, plenty of small-town kooks and oddballs (including deadpan Gordon Pinsent as an old-timer who has never left the harbor because he doesn’t know how to take a bus), and charade shenanigans, many of them involving locals having to pretend they love cricket. It’s familiar, predictable, and seemingly primed for the mild chuckles of an airplane audience.
Even a light scratch at the movie’s surface reveals something sour underneath. The film—a straight remake of the 2003 Québécois hit Seducing Doctor Lewis—is about a group of people trying to cheat a crooked corporation into giving them jobs so that they can feel satisfied. It treats this satisfaction as genuine, just as it treats Paul’s affection for the townsfolk as something redemptive and real, without attempting to make the case for either, because it presumes that the appeal of conservative, small-town life is obvious. Its politics are strictly Harperite: anti-environmentalist, anti-welfare, anti-intellectual, and fixated on “traditional” Canadian identity. It takes place in a world where fisherman would rather raise $100,000 to bribe an oil-company executive than accept government aid. Anyone who doesn’t share the movie’s political viewpoint is bound to find it cheap and disingenuous.