The Hollywood comedy formula gets a bad reputation, but that's only because it's so often done poorly. When a movie sticks to the status quo and does it right, hitting the story beats you're expecting with wit and grace, it can feel as thrilling as watching something wholly original, like seeing a trapeze artist land on a platform you knew she'd reach all along. As sunny as the title suggests, Morning Glory is a sharp and endearing take on the workplace comedy, anchored by veteran Roger Michell's sure-handed direction and a luminous lead performance from Rachel McAdams, proving once again what a great and underappreciated comedic talent she is.
Screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, whose acid wit helped make The Devil Wears Prada a mammoth hit, is in familiar territory with another frenzied working woman, Becky Fuller (McAdams), a direct descendant of Holly Hunter's Broadcast News character crossed with 30 Rock's Liz Lemon. She's dedicated her life to a low-rent New Jersey morning show that repays the favor by firing her, and because Morning Glory is that kind of movie, Becky lands not in the unemployment line but at Daybreak, a national morning show at the fictional IBS network. OK, it's the fourth-rated morning show-- as Jeff Goldblum's network executive character puts it, "we're behind Today, Good Morning America and whatever they have on CBS"-- but Becky jumps in with both feet, immediately firing the caddish co-anchor (Ty Burrell, hilarious in a brief role) and replacing him with former nightly news anchor and real-deal reporter Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford).
Pomeroy is the kind of irascible crank Ford seems to unintentionally play every time he's thrust in front of red carpet cameras, but he seems to be having genuine fun here, needling Becky by doing everything from going on a bender with Chris Matthews, Bob Schieffer and Morley Safer as drinking buddies to refusing to say words on-air like "fluffy." Clashing with the entire staff and insisting there's room on the show for real news, Pomeroy is a constant thorn in Becky's side, refusing to participate in increasingly outlandish ratings stunts, like sending the weatherman (Matt Malloy) skydiving or pitting co-anchor Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) against a sumo wrestler. The ratings do go up, and Becky even finds time for a refreshingly frank and adult romance with fellow network employee Adam (Patrick Wilson), but the real story is between her and Pomeroy, as the man described as the "third-worst person in the world" constantly challenges her commitment to making Daybreak a silly, gimmick-laden success.
With Adam is the picture as the real romantic option, Michell and McKenna are free to tell Morning Glory as a kind of platonic love story between Pomeroy and Becky, as their clashes over the show's content and the role of real news on a morning show develops into a surprisingly real bond. Ford never overplays Pomeroy's gradual thaw, and though Becky is raising Daybreak's ratings through any means necessary, you sense she believes in the power of television journalism as much as he does. It's a little disappointing how much the movie comes down on Becky's side, never asking her to rethink her commitment to goofy and gimmicky morning TV, but Daybreak might just be a lot like Morning Glory itself-- insubstantial and a little shallow, but deliciously fun all the same.
Though Ford and McAdams make for a spectacular lead pair, Morning Glory works well as an ensemble piece, with Michell bringing the same skill he showed in Notting Hill to flesh out supporting characters in just a few key moments. Keaton, though stuck in an underwritten role, shines both while sparring with Ford and participating in some of Daybreak's more outlandish stunts, and John Pankow shines as Becky's worn-out producer partner in crime. Even Wilson, technically playing the less significant third point of a love triangle, makes Adam more than just a handsome face to come home to, building a believable chemistry with McAdams as two professionals who, in their hearts, know they will always put work first.
The story gets a little bogged down near the beginning of the third act, when Becky must cry and learn lessons and lose a few things before she gets her happy ending, and the ensemble energy of the newsroom gives way to her personal, less interesting dilemmas. But for the most part Morning Glory is zippy and confident, the actors landing every one of McKenna's many funny lines and Michell pushing the comedy forward without ever straining for laughs. It's a terrific vehicle for McAdams, who possesses a crack comic timing and beautiful lack of self-consciousness that allows her to both run through a room in her underwear in one scene and nail a job interview in the next. She's gorgeous but believably brainy, clever but always a bit frazzled, and the fact that movie reaffirms her commitment to her job is wonderfully refreshing, even if that job is in making morning TV more ridiculous and pandering by the minute.
By shying away from the news vs. entertainment question that's actually at its center, Morning Glory doesn't make the leap from a good comedy to a truly great one-- it's no Broadcast News, though with its bright cinematography and crowded soundtrack, it probably never aimed to be. Instead it is simply a perfectly executed, genuinely funny and appealing Hollywood comedy, like a great cover of a song you already thought you were tired of. We need more originality in movies, sure, but a take on familiar material that's this confident and entertaining can be just as satisfying.