Thursday, August 03, 2017

Brave New Jersey: Orson Welles Freaks Out NJ

Maybe we are just jaundiced, but from our vantage point, it is hard to fathom the panic supposedly caused by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds newsreel style radio drama. Didn’t it seem odd no other network was reporting the story? Talk about a scoop—or did NBC just decide Martians landing in New Jersey and killing people with death rays was not a sufficiently important story to interrupt Edgar Bergin (and while we’re on the subject, how does it possibly make sense to put a ventriloquist on radio? Can’t see his lips move? That’s because its radio, Einstein). In fact, subsequent scholarship and reporting suggests the panic was over-stated by newspapers looking to discredit their radio competitors and Welles himself, who always recognized good publicity when it dropped in his lap. That means the events depicted in this sleepy 1938 Jersey town are necessarily exaggerated, but if Orson Welles wouldn’t have minded, why should we, when Jody Lambert’s Brave New Jersey (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

Clark Hill is the mayor of Lullaby, NJ, but it is well-heeled Sam Davison who really calls the shots. He has the money and he is married to passive Lorraine Davison, whom Mayor Hill hopelessly pines for. He might have an outside chance when her husband runs off like a coward, under the mistaken impression Martians have landed at Grover’s Mill and are working their way towards Lullaby.

Unfortunately, the authority-vacuum he leaves will be filled by the hard-charging WWI vet, Captain Ambrose P. Collins. Meanwhile, the town’s excuse for a pastor, the Reverend Ray Rogers suddenly gets an apocalyptic evangelical fire in his belly. He has his flock believing the Almighty sent the UFOs to deliver them from the wickedness. Probably not, but at least he has them acting in a calm and orderly manner. Other residents might have a thing or two to be embarrassed by when the Mercury Theater genius finally comes clean.

Brave NJ (the Huxley reference really doesn’t fit, but whatever) is shticky and saccharine, but it sort of pulls itself together in the third act. Viewers will be girding themselves for clumsy attack on Christianity through Rev. Rogers, as in the terrible remake of The Blob, but its depiction of the shepherd and his flock is surprisingly sympathetic and forgiving.

Dan Bakkedahl does indeed have some nice, redeeming moments as Rev. Ray. Tony Hale (Buster Bluth) certainly makes a non-threatening sad sack as Mayor Hill. As. Lorraine Davison, Heather Burns seems to be zonked out on prescription drugs, but maybe that’s a deliberate commentary on the era. However, it is the crafty veteran Raymond J. Barry as the crafty veteran Ambrose P. Collins who steals scene after scene.

Brave is mostly harmless and largely bogus. It should have fully committed to either madcap lunacy or small town nostalgia, but instead it tries to split the difference. You are better off watching George Pal’s War of the Worlds with Gene Barry, but that probably goes without saying. Just okay-ish, Brave New Jersey opens tomorrow (8/4) at the Cinema Village. Keep watching the skies.