There is an old Hollywood superstition that film titles are cursed if they end with a question mark. It’s the unwritten rule that separates a Who Framed Roger Rabbit from a What About Bob? – one of which you’d have heard of, the other a notorious disaster only remembered by true Bill Murray devotees. The problems that engulfed the 2009 romantic comedy Did You Hear About the Morgans? weren’t exclusive to its title, but it was a succinct encapsulation of the curse’s apparent power. Not only did that unwieldy, unmemorable and too inquisitive name assist in sinking the cinematic romcom genre all together, it nearly took down Hugh Grant as well.
Today, everyone loves Hugh Grant. That nervous, Four Weddings-era fidgeting that annoyed so many 25 years ago was, somewhere around Paddington 2 and A Very English Scandal, transformed into something deliciously self-mocking, grumpy, and occasionally unnerving. The Undoing, Grant’s recent Sky Atlantic limited series, cast him as a sleazy murder suspect, and he was genuinely brilliant. How he got to that point? As Grant tells it, Did You Hear About the Morgans? was to blame.
“Hollywood gave me up because I made such a massive turkey with that film with Sarah Jessica Parker,” he told The Los Angeles Times last week. “Whether I wanted to or not after that, the days of being a very well-paid leading man were suddenly gone overnight.”
Did You Hear About the Morgans? can be found among the dregs of Grant’s illustrious romcom career, just below Bridget Jones 2, in which Renee Zellweger spends far too long in a Bangkok prison, but above Nine Months – a film so bad that Grant’s arrest for picking up a sex worker while promoting it was somehow less embarrassing. Grant and Parker play a separated New York power couple named Paul and Meryl, who witness a murder while squabbling in the rain. After both are subsequently pursued by a hitman, they are placed in the witness protection programme, which sends them to a remote Wyoming town for safety. There, bears roam front gardens, food can only be bought in bulk, and the local nightlife begins and ends with line-dancing. Because it is 2009, a Sarah Palin reference gets the only laugh.
The third collaboration between Grant and director Marc Lawrence, after the far better Two Weeks Notice and Music and Lyrics, Did You Hear About the Morgans? is uniquely atrocious; a laugh-free slog in which jokes linger helplessly in the air, awaiting an audience chuckle that never comes. It feels like a rough sketch of a movie, one that hopes and prays its two stars can muster enough comic CPR to inspire giggles because the script isn’t up to scratch. Poor Elisabeth Moss, on a hiatus from early Mad Men and playing Parker’s Blackberry-magnetised assistant, seems just happy to be there, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Invisible Man still a long while off.
Oddly, Grant and Parker are two of the film’s biggest problems, primarily because they’re playing faded photo-copies of characters they’ve aced elsewhere. They give Paul and Meryl a shot of big-city swishiness, reusing the same tics and gestures seen and enjoyed in the likes of Two Weeks Notice and Sex and the City. But there is a weariness, too – two actors who are beloved in these particular modes, yet who feel stiff and adrift as they struggle vainly to replicate them. They’re also strangely out of sync with each other, unable to generate heat nor any kind of comic rhythm. Grant, for what it’s worth, has confessed to finding their absence of chemistry oddly fascinating, particularly because he and Parker genuinely liked one another off-camera.
“There are times when you’ve perhaps had a more tense relationship with your co-star, and it looks great on film,” Grant said in 2016. “And sometimes when you’ve got on like a house on fire, it looks a bit flat. It’s very strange. Hate translates very nicely into love.”
He often mentions this strange paradox when discussing Music and Lyrics, his 2007 romcom in which he played the faded frontman of a Wham!-like Eighties pop duo. He and his co-star Drew Barrymore were regularly at odds on set, but created sparks on screen. “Drew did hate me a bit,” Grant confessed in 2018. “We just were very different human beings. She’s very LA, and I’m this grumpy, old Londoner. But the funny thing is that while it was tense on the set of that film, I think the chemistry’s rather good between us. Sometimes tension makes a good crackle.”
Grant and Parker aren’t as relaxed together, despite Did You Hear About the Morgans? marking their second time playing love interests – 13 years earlier, they were doctors in the risible thriller Extreme Measures, an early genre pivot for Grant that he has since admitted he ballsed up. They’re at least still friends despite their spotty cinematic track record, Parker remarking in 2018 how much she loves Grant – whatever the quality of “that terrific cinema experience called ‘Don’t Worry About the Morgans, They’re Gonna Be Fine’? I don’t even know what it was called…”
Grant’s work in the film is interesting, though. When we think of Grant’s film career, we tend to think of constant, stammering charm, or at least a light affability that can paper over even the largest of cinematic cracks. But it’s not strictly true. Grant is a wonderful comic actor, but he’s not a movie-rescuer, or someone capable of single-handedly salvaging a bad movie by sheer force of will.
All of Grant’s great movies are great movies independently from him: Four Weddings or About a Boy. Throw Grant into something with a shaky foundation, as in the horrid Simon Cowell spoof American Dreamz or the Mafia comedy Mickey Blue Eyes, and he seems to collapse. That wonderfully expressive face can never seem to conceal his on-set realisation that he’s in something lousy.
Even before Grant spoke last week of Did You Hear About the Morgans? derailing his career, he had expressed dissatisfaction with the movie. In 2012, satirist and former talk show host Jon Stewart said that Grant was the worst guest he ever had on his show. “And we’ve had dictators,” he joked. He recalled their 2009 encounter, with Grant on the Morgans promotional trail, and the actor throwing a tantrum backstage over the clip chosen to best advertise the film – it wasn’t very funny, Grant claimed. The jokes, unfortunately, write themselves. “He’s giving everyone s--- the whole time,” Stewart remembered, “and he’s a big pain in the a--. ‘What is that clip? It’s a terrible clip!’ Well, then make a better f---ing movie.”
When Stewart’s recollection of Grant’s behaviour went viral, Grant apologised on Twitter. “Turns out my inner crab got the better of me with [a] TV producer in 2009,” Grant wrote. “Unforgivable. J Stewart correct to give me [a] kicking.” He elaborated on the incident to InStyle in October. “I was at my worst,” Grant told the magazine. “I was drinking too much at that time, and I probably had a horrible hangover. And I knew no one really liked the film.”
Did You Hear About the Morgans? was released in the midst of a transition period for the romantic comedy. Judd Apatow romcoms like Knocked Up and This is 40 were ruling the box office, with audiences drawn to their dirtier, edgier and more candid depictions of sex and marriage. Grant’s typically cleaner star vehicles suddenly felt tired by proxy, their declining audience numbers signalling a sea change in how we consumed the genre. Their themes would come to dominate comedy TV shows rather than movies, and Netflix rather than the local multiplex.
Many of the women that Grant had famously worked alongside, themselves also often associated with romcoms, had already seemed to take notice of the changes ahead. In 2009, Grant’s Two Weeks Notice co-star Sandra Bullock starred in The Blind Side, which would win her an Oscar in early 2010. The year 2009 also saw Barrymore give a career-best performance in the HBO adaptation of seminal documentary Grey Gardens, and it would win her a Golden Globe. Grant, meanwhile, seemed comparatively trapped in amber, an actor often described as having comfortably rested on a tried-and-tested barrel of tricks for nearly 20 years, and uninterested in any kind of experimentation. In truth, he was riddled with nerves.
“Every decision I ever made was probably wrong,” Grant told The Hollywood Reporter last year. “After [Four Weddings], the world was my oyster. I should’ve made interesting decisions and done different stuff. Instead, I repeated myself almost identically about 17 times in a row.” He was also suffering from regular panic attacks on set, something that began while filming 1999’s Notting Hill, and grew worse over time. “It’ll be in a very easy, simple scene when everything is going swimmingly, and then suddenly, bang, I’m shvitzing and can’t remember my lines,” he said in 2016.
Grant would similarly begin to call himself “a reluctant actor” in interviews, joke (sort of) that he couldn’t really act at all, or downplay his well-reviewed performances in films like About a Boy or Sense and Sensibility. His confidence seemed knocked, he would stop acting in things, and instead became a prolific figure in phone hacking activism, waging war against tabloid newspapers. “That was all fascinating and dramatic, and really refreshing as well, to do something that was completely nothing to do with showbiz,” he told Vanity Fair.
But there was a sense, back then, that he hadn’t been utilised correctly by cinema, a mix of typecasting and personal neuroses resulting in a suddenly uninspiring acting career. There were hidden facets beneath the “Hugh Grant” on-screen persona that were unexplored in many of his roles – a deviance or a shiftiness, which could be played for both laughs or menace.
His best work, like the Jeremy Thorpe mini-series A Very English Scandal, has combined elements of both. It has gone awry on occasion (playing a futuristic cannibal in Cloud Atlas would have been a tall order for most stars, let alone someone who at that point had only played “Hugh Grant” for at least a decade), but his gradual post-Leveson Enquiry comeback would slowly transform him into one of our most surprising character actors, rather than one of our most repetitive leading men.
To get him there, he needed a film like Did You Hear About the Morgans?, which landed with a belly-flop and lost its studio millions of dollars. It turned out that the answer to its titular question was a resounding “no”, and it ultimately proved his salvation.