Don McKellar’s “The Grand Seduction,” a love letter to the simpler things in life, is more charming than seductive thanks to the immediate expiry date of its emotional potency, but it’s a thrifty little film perfectly suited for family movie night. Location has become such a diminutive aspect in the most successful films these days, with global centerfold cities like New York, L.A., London, Toronto, Paris and Tokyo reshuffled so much that they’ve all just merged into The Big Urban City. This has led to more and more filmmakers who stopped caring to explain why films are set in a particular place. In this way, the most alluring aspect of “The Grand Seduction” isn’t its compact population of 120 twee folk but rather the actual small harbor of Tickle Cove in Newfoundland where the story is set and the seduction takes place. Also at play here is Taylor Kitsch’s career, which has received some punches recently, but McKellar’s film proves to be a good ointment for the bruises, because together with the impossible-not-to-love Brendan Gleeson, Kitsch carries the film without stumbling.
Tickle Cove was once a proud little harbor town where people “earned life’s precious moments” thanks to hard work, and came home to a warm plate and a loving hug. So Murphy French (Gleeson) tells us over narration in the film’s opening moments, recalling the golden days of his childhood when his town was filled with purpose and comfort. The present situation in Tickle Cove isn’t as sweet as its name suggests because economic hardships have put the harbor town’s population under a spell of lazy hopelessness. Today, they trickle down to the bank to pick up meager welfare checks because they’ve been banned from fishing. The town’s mayor calls town meetings no one pays attention to, Murphy’s wife has no choice but to leave for St. John’s in order to get a job, and the whole town looks defeated. When Murphy decides to go to one of these town meetings, he realizes that the prospect of having a factory in Tickle Cove is the only thing that will save the harbor from ruin. The only thing they need to secure the corporate deal is a resident doctor.
The story follows Murphy and his posse of likeable misfits as they try to charm, persuade, and seduce Dr. Lewis (Kitsch) into signing on long term to be the town’s official doctor. How Dr. Lewis got into the picture in the first place is one of many examples of the ill timed and rushed plot of “The Grand Seduction.” The town’s mayor, after bailing on his people and the factory project, gets a job as an airport security guard and finds cocaine in Lewis’ bag of medical supplies. Once he finds out he’s a doctor, the cheeky smile tells us how his eight-year-long search is over. Where to begin? The cocaine is an unbelievable McGuffin in no way relatable to anything Lewis says or does in the film, and it truly feels like it exists as a poor plot excuse and as a way to give Gleeson a golden moment (which, granted, is perfect) a little later on. The circumstances and deus ex machina at play surrounding Lewis’ introduction (meeting that specific security guard, at that airport, etc.) is all a bit hard to swallow, and we won’t even get into the population quote requirement tossed in as a third act distraction. All this serves to make an overall flimsy mess of the plot construction, rendering any genuine emotional engagement practically impossible. It doesn’t help that most of the townspeople in the film feel fabricated for sympathy or a few chuckles rather than people going through tough times. If you manage to put all of that aside, however, “The Grand Seduction” is enjoyable enough thanks to a few key things.
Gleeson’s Murphy is instantly likeable, and the various comical hats his character puts on during the film (drug dealer, cricket master, church goer, fisherman…) are balanced out very nicely with his deep sadness over what’s happening to his town. The narration helps a ton in this regard because his delivery makes storytelling an essential accompaniment to the fairytale-like lure of Tickle Cove’s predicament. The wonderful Gordon Pinset as Simon is the only other truly notable townsperson and, while his token grumpiness and sarcasm is welcomed, it’s his authentic touch to the cast (Pinset is a native Newfie) that stands out the most. And then there’s Taylor Kitsch, who after three critically panned disasters seems to be doing exactly the right thing by going indie, playing the down to earth hero in subtle fashion and making it work. Yet none of these guys outshine Tickle Cove, this picture’s most splendid protagonist. Surrounded by an ocean, its affluent greenery is all the more pronounced and easy on the eyes, and Douglas Koch’s cinematography has the effect to make you pause and ponder the easy life in the fresh air, away from the big city and all its smog and dishonesty.
With a few kooky and awfully endearing characters, a handful of genial moments of seduction (watch out for the “Lamb Dam Sack festival” and dare not to burst out laughing), and the appeal of the bucolic surroundings where no cell phone coverage will force you to pay attention to life’s precious moments, “The Grand Seduction” reeks of a pleasantness that makes for a very soothing watch. The lack of character depth and the contrived plot won’t be placing it near any top ten lists, but there are far worse ways to spend two hours in a theatre these days. [B-]