By Laton McCartney
New York, NY __The just-released movie “Did You Hear about the Morgans?” is supposed to be set in Wyoming. The ever-hopeful Wyoming Film Office, the bureau that tries to attract lucrative Hollywood projects to the state, desperately wanted it.
The film’s director Marc Lawrence even spent some time in Meeteetse where he hung out with Tim Kellogg, the Cowboy Chocolatier, scouting for material.
“I got specific information and insight that was utilized in the script. The people were terrific, welcoming and very generous with their time,” Lawrence told the film office.
In a December 17 release, the state tourism department described Meeteetse as the “perfect model” for the film. But as with other movies supposedly set in Wyoming (see “Brokeback Mountain,” set in Wyoming but filmed in Canada), the movie was shot somewhere else— in this case, New Mexico.
In fact, almost all the movies set in Wyoming over the past few decades or so have been filmed elsewhere. For instance, “Taking Chance,” the 2009 HBO film about United States Marine Corps Lance Corporal Chance Phelps’s body being returned from Iraq to Dubois for burial was shot in Montana. “Red Rock West,” a 1993 neo-noir thriller, which supposedly takes place in Red Rock, Wyoming, was filmed in Montana and Arizona. At least Steven Spielberg used the real Devil’s Tower in his 1977 classic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Given its vast range of spectacular scenery, why is Wyoming missing out? A big reason is money, or lack thereof. Wyoming offers moviemakers peanuts in tax incentives ($900,000 a year) compared to a state like New Mexico ($80-million in 2009). The result: Ten films were produced in New Mexico this year and another four are wrapping. The benefits to the New Mexican economy are enormous. In 2007 movie production in New Mexico generated $257 million for the state.
The lack of film production in the Cowboy state may not be all bad, given the hackneyed collection of clodhopper clichés and hinterland humor contained in “Did You Hear About the Morgans?”—a comedy in which Wyoming serves mainly as a metaphor for backwardness.
In the movie, which opened nation-wide on Dec. 18, Meryl Fisher, the owner of a high-end Manhattan real estate boutique, has to make a life-or-death decision. After she and her soon-to- be ex-husband Paul witness the murder of an international arms dealer, Meryl is told by a federal marshal that the pair need to go into a witness protection program pronto and leave behind Meryl’s beloved New York. If they insist on remaining in the city, it’s a near certainty they’ll be killed in a matter days or even hours.
In other words, Meryl’s choice – and she’s the reluctant one — is imminent death or exile to “the middle of nowhere,” — in this instance the fictional town of Ray, Wyoming. For Meryl this is a tough decision. “I’m thinking,” she tells the marshal after the mandatory comedic pause.
Played by Sarah Jessica Parker of “Sex and the City” fame, Meryl is the quintessential Manhattanite, a highly successful, neurotic, always-on-the- go over- achiever who sells seven and eight- figure condos in the most fashionable neighborhoods, and jabbers away like a woodpecker on speed. Not that she’s entirely consumed by raking in the enormous commissions to support her expensive life style. This is a woman who raises funds for breast cancer in her spare time and desperately wants to adopt a child. Unfortunately, her marriage has gone sour. The problem: Her husband. Paul, who heads up a law firm, had a one night fling during a trip to the West Coast.
As portrayed by Hugh Grant, Paul is a likeable, slightly bumbling, long on charm, short on practical sense Englishman, a true romantic at heart. He desperately wants to win Meryl back, but she simply can’t trust him after what happened in California. Hey, can you blame her? He lavishes her with outrageously expensive gifts and convinces her to find room in her busy schedule for one last dinner at which he pleas for reconciliation.
It’s a no-go, sadly. Still, Paul walks Meryl in the rain to her after-dinner meeting with a client. That’s the arms dealer. Who else can afford to buy a Manhattan apartment these days? The moment the Gordons arrive, the arms dealer tumbles out his second story window with a knife in his back. Meryl and Paul look up and get a clear view of the killer standing in the open window. The killer looks down and gets a clear look at Paul and Meryl, whereupon he fires several shots, and they jump into a cab, thereby disproving one Manhattan myth—you can’t ever get a taxi in New York when you need one.
The next thing you know the Morgans are being whisked off on a government jet to Ray, Wyoming, or rather the closest airport in Cody. The Cody airport terminal (not to be too much of a stickler, but it’s the Yellowstone Regional Airport, Cody) as depicted in the film is approximately the size of Bull’s Conoco in Dubois. Of course the one security guard in the facility has nodded off, this being a sleepy town. Where’s the local marshal who is supposed look after them during their stay in the witness protection program? The Morgons grow increasingly nervous, especially after Paul reads a poster in the airport about what to do in case of a grizzly bear attack. A half dozen grizzly jokes follow, several of them involving Paul being sprayed in the face with bear spray.
Fortunately, the local marshal, Clay Wheeler, (Sam Elliot) arrives on the scene before long. An imposing figure with a handlebar mustache and a husky voice, Clay embodies Hollywood’s idea of a fearless, clear-eyed, straight- shooting western lawman. Clearly, the Morgans are in good hands. Still, as soon as they climb into Clay’s pickup truck, Meryl starts complaining.
Thinking perhaps she was being sent off by the Feds to Paris or Palm Beach instead of Ray, Wyoming, she brought all the wrong clothes – chic, expensive gowns, shoes, and the like. Not to worry. Clay takes them to the local Bargain Barn. Much to Clay’s amazement, Meryl says she’s never been to a Bargain Barn – read Wal-Mart. How could that be? Meryl explains impatiently that there are no Bargain Barns in Manhattan. She’s never shops outside Manhattan. In fact, her universe is bounded by the Hudson and East rivers.
Despite themselves, she and Paul are amazed at Bargain Barn’s incredibly low prices. A sweater for $7! No, wait, the store is offering two sweaters for $7. Meryl picks up an entirely new Ray, Wyoming appropriate wardrobe while Paul slips off to acquire enough bear spray to repel half the grizzlies in Yellowstone.
In the parking lot we meet Clay’s wife, deputy Marshal Emma (Mary Steenburgen), a no-nonsense gal who buys high powered hunting rifles the way Meryl acquires designer shoes. The writer-director Marc Lawrence and Steenburger could have gone all Sarah Palin on us here, but Emma comes across as a likeable, believable character rather than a caricature.
She asks if Meryl hunts. “Only for bargains,” the New Yorker responds, adding that she’s a member of PETA. Emma says she’s a member of PETA as well — People who Eat Tasty Animals. Of course, Meryl turns out to be a vegan, which in Wyoming means your menu choices are slim and none.
The last third of the film plays out on the Wheeler ranch and in the blink-once- and- you’ve- missed- it town of Ray. Ray is described as the friendliest small town in America or words to that effect. Here we’re introduced to just about every small town western stereotype Hollywood can come up with. There’s the local doctor who looks like he’s still in high school, who tends to Paul every time he Paul gets sprayed in the face with the bear repellent. Meryl takes a shine to the young doc and helps him sell his mother’s house by suggesting Mom take the aging, dilapidated arm chair that’s parked in the front lawn to the junk yard. A paint job wouldn’t hurt either.
The doctor’s pretty, bubble-headed receptionist makes lame jokes and tells Meryl and Paul she needs three jobs to survive in Wyoming. She has that right. Besides her work in the medical office, she’s a trick rider and the assistant fire department chief, which entails hosing down the fire engine in short shorts.
Then, we have Earl (Wilford Brimley), the curmudgeonly owner of the only café in town. Earl doesn’t like Democrats – Ray has 13 of them – and he especially doesn’t like New Yorkers who ask him not to smoke in his own café. Perhaps the Morgans should go back to where they came from, Earl suggests.
Earl has hopes his grand daughter, whom he is raising, will eventually win “American Idol.” No question, the little gal can really belt out “Redneck Woman.” She’s not crazy about Democrats either. Still, she and everyone else in town, even gramps, rally around the Morgans in their hour of need. These are good, generous folks tolerant of even self-absorbed, neurotic New Yorkers.
At the ranch, Meryl throws a conniption fit when she thinks about all she’s missing being stuck out in the boondocks – New York bagels, Shakespeare in the Park, Lincoln Center, the Sunday Times. She and Paul argue so much that the Wheelers began to miss their last federally sponsored house guest, a mafia hit man nicknamed “The Butcher.” To end the squabbling Clay and Emma take the Morgans out riding and shooting at tin cans. Meryl turns out to be a pretty good shot, but for the life of him, Paul can’t split a cord of wood with an axe.
Having gazed up at the profusion of stars in the Wyoming sky one night – nothing like that in Central Park- Paul and Meryl begin trying to put their marriage back together with a little help from the Wheelers. When Paul asks Emma how she and Clay made up after a fight, she suggests Paul ask his wife on a date. This kind of works.
When Meryl approaches Clay and asks him a similar question, he’s in the barn milking one of the Wheelers’ three milk cows, the only livestock on the place. (Note to Hollywood: Ranchers generally don’t keep milk cows. You’re confusing them with farmers who wear overalls, grow sugar beets and, yes, milk old Bessie).
Meryl confesses to Clay that she had a little overnight dalliance herself when she and Paul were separated. Clay asks her to help with the milking. OK, but should she tell Paul about the affair. Clay tells her to “be gentle with the teats.” Viola! Meryl reads this as some kind of cryptic cowboy zen message, meaning she should tell Paul, but gently. This turns out not to be a good idea at all.
I, of course, can’t divulge the ending except to say it involves a horse shoe, the return of the killer, a rodeo, Paul and Meryl in a four-legged bull suit, and more pepper spray. This film runs 1 hour and 40 minutes.
WyoFile contributor and author Laton McCartney splits time between homes in New York City and Dubois. His most recent book is Teapot Dome: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country (Random House 2008).