Backward, poor, and provincial, small towns nonetheless have a lot to teach city slickers in films like “Tight Little Island,” “Local Hero,” and “Waking Ned Devine.” Not just the simple pleasures of raising a family, working hard, and drinking heavily, but also a lesson in the folly of underestimating their savvy, a mistake Dr. Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch) makes in Don McKellar’s anodyne amusement, the hyperbolically titled “The Grand Seduction.” A bumptious yuppified cipher in the midst of clichéd “characters,” Lewis undergoes a seduction that is not so much grand as bland, nor are audiences likely to be seduced by the film’s genial, familiar formula.
Tickle Head, Newfoundland, has seen better times. Eulogized in voice-over and flashback by native son and acting mayor Murray French (Brendan Gleeson, much better as the black comic antithesis of this character in 2011’s “The Guard”), it had once been a community of fishermen who put in a day’s labor and returned home to dinner full of the satisfaction of being a real man and a good provider, followed by a roll in the hay with the wife, shown tastelessly in a long nocturnal shot of the town with amorous groaning from each bedroom window.
Years later the town is dying. There’s no work (the film glosses over the fact that this is because they have fished the cod to near extinction), everyone is on the dole, and the only hope is winning the bid for a petro-chemical facility that will guarantee everyone employment. The catch? Tickle Head needs a doctor to qualify. That’s when Lewis, an aspiring plastic surgeon, carelessly passes through airport security carrying cocaine. An airport agent, who has a Tickle Head connection, offers him a deal — public service as Tickle Head’s (I can’t stop writing the town’s name; it might be the funniest thing in the movie) doctor for a month.
In short, it’s a Newfie variation of the 1991 Michael J. Fox comedy “Doc Hollywood.”
To wheedle Lewis into staying for keeps, French rallies his apathetic fellow citizens, who turn Tickle Head into a Potemkin village that offers everything Lewis is fond of, from cricket (cricket? really?) to the comely post office clerk Kathleen (Liane Balaban, archly aloof). They learn his tastes by tapping his telephone, which results in the squirmy comedy of elderly telephone operators listening to Lewis have phone sex with his absentee fiancée. On the plus side, the plot also sparks some arresting images, such as an extreme longshot of a group of men in makeshift cricket whites scurrying about the green flat of a seaside cliff.
Charming, but not seductive.
Probably the only one won over by this trifle is McKellar, a unique, underused talent (“Last Night”), reduced to taking on this journeyman project.