Film Review: Brave New Jersey

Disappointingly tepid take on the panic provoked by Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast.
Specialty Releases

The day before Halloween in 1938, the worlds of Orson Welles and H.G. Wells collided in a classic radio broadcast that spooked the nation. Welles reduced Wells’ novel of a Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds, to almost an hour of simulated news bulletins that convinced the gullible that it was an actual alien invasion.

The premise promises high comedy—think no further than The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, when New England denizens were panicked by a handful of misguided Soviets—but, unfortunately, Brave New Jersey doesn’t think high at all.

Director Jody Lambert and co-writer Michael Dowling take the middle ground in their fictional township of Lullaby, NJ, and come up with nothing particularly funny or dramatic. As they see it, there’s nothing like a foreign invasion to give one pause and life-altering introspection. Looming doom does that, apparently.

The town’s milquetoast mayor (Tony Hale of “Veep”) grows a pair and declares his love for a cuckolded housewife (Heather Burns)—just in time, too, as her hubby (Sam Jaeger) has hightailed it to his mistress, leaving her and the kids in the dust. The local reverend (Dan Bakkedahl of “Life in Pieces”) finds his mislaid faith, and the local sheriff (Mel Rodriguez) finds his courage. A pert schoolmarm (Anna Camp) finds time to switch boyfriends, and a cranky World War I vet (Raymond J. Barry) rediscovers an old calling, leading the charge of first-responders against the imaginary Martians.

The whole town appears to be populated with contemporary supporting players from TV, all of whom have the chops to bring some comic vitality to the proceedings but seem muted and muzzled by director Lambert’s undecided tone. (Barry fares the best with his battle bluster and swagger, cracking lines like “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it!” or “Don’t give me any of that half-assed half-assedness!”)

Maury City, Tenn., plausibly passes for small-town backwoods New Jersey, and considerable care has been taken in the costumes and production values to evoke pre-World War II Americana. Only in that innocent time could such a story happen.                             

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