A fantastic ruse is underway in the small harbor town of Tickle Head in Newfoundland. Director Don McKellar’s charming new comedy, “The Grand Seduction,” tells the tale of Tickle Head’s 120 residents and their ploy to lure a young doctor to join their community so they can win a contract to secure a factory.
Based on the 2003 French language Quebecois comedy, “Seducing Doctor Lewis,” the English-Canadian remake feels like a throwback film, imbued with a hokey sense of humor and set in a fairytale-like fictional village.
Once proud fishermen, the residents of the hamlet survive on welfare checks while their community fades away, but a “petrochemical byproduct repurposing facility” just may be the answer to their problems. Almost by accident, a young plastic surgeon named Dr. Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), gets into some trouble with Tickle Head’s former mayor and is blackmailed into working for one month as the town’s physician.
Hijinks ensue as the locals try every trickery they can imagine to deceive the doctor into staying for good so the oil company will build a factory in the harbor village. In one especially chuckle-worthy scene, the menfolk try to learn to play cricket — the doctor’s favorite sport — by looking up the rules on the town’s one computer while the women raid their linen cupboards for whites to make uniforms.
“This kind of movie is not the kind of movie that you see a lot anymore, but it really transports you to places you don’t know,” Toronto-born McKellar told The Daily Californian in a phone interview. “You really feel like you’re in a community that’s foreign to you and maybe exotic. Not many people know [Newfoundland] that well, but it has such a deep culture and such a distinctive culture. Even the accent is so unusual, and I really worked hard to invest it with that type of authenticity and that sense of place. I shot it all there and used as many local actors as I could.”
The setting may be unknown to many American viewers, but “The Grand Seduction” boasts an impressive cast of familiar faces, notably Irishman Brendan Gleeson — starring as Murray French, Tickle Head’s replacement mayor — and Gordon Pinsent — who is hilarious as one of the town’s elders, Simon. After starring in box-office flops “John Carter” and “Battleship,” “Friday Night Lights” alum Kitsch may just bring his career back to life with his role as Dr. Lewis, the object of the film’s titular seduction. Kitsch — both oblivious and endearing as the doctor — seems well suited for the toned-down indie film, in which his calm demeanor and grounded presence are not overshadowed by big-budget production and special effects.
“I was really excited about the idea of Taylor because, first of all, I wanted a real fish-out-of-water, and Taylor has that West Coast, bro feel to him — that I guess you would know about,” McKellar shared. “He’s probably not as foreign to you, but he’s definitely foreign out there in Newfoundland. Something about his whole bearing and way of talking … Also, I always thought that he had this charm and old-fashioned movie-star quality about him that would relay the part. I didn’t want him to be too gullible; I wanted him to be someone we liked. He’s got to be surprisingly likable, and I think Taylor has that … It’s easy to overlook the real difficulties of playing the straight man.”
“The Grand Seduction,” though at times lacking in onscreen chemistry and emotional depth, succeeds as what McKellar calls a “social comedy.” Not only does the film focus on a vibrant but often-overlooked population, but it also shines a light on an equally overlooked problem facing isolated communities.
“I hope people also think of the genuine disparity out there and the regions that have been overlooked by this so-called recovery and the cultures that are dying because of that kind of neglect.” McKellar said. “There are a lot of imperiled cultures around the world, but certainly in North America, in regions that have this kind of traditional wisdom and lifestyle that we’re undervaluing. I hope in a comic way that this film points out the ethical compromises that we’re forcing on some of these communities.”
Even while highlighting these problems, McKellar still manages to make “The Grand Seduction” feel like a cinematic postcard from Newfoundland, from the picturesque scenery to the humanizing authenticity of Tickle Head’s residents.
“The Grand Seduction” opens Friday at Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.