There are a lot of funny people in “Brave New Jersey,” but the movie is not very funny.
Oh, it’s cute in spots, and the actors have some engaging moments. But with a cast this good, you expect something that will provide some genuine laughs, not merely an occasional smile.
The movie is lifted from a real incident. In 1938, Orson Welles narrated a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” that terrified listeners who genuinely believed Martians were invading. It inspired a decent 1975 TV movie that pretty much spelled it all out in the title, “The Night That Panicked America.” “Brave New Jersey” takes a whimsical stab at the event.
It is based in the fictional town of Lullaby, N.J., which happens to be near Grover’s Mill, the center of the alien invasion in the radio drama. Lullaby is tiny; its claim to fame is that it’s the home of the Rotolactor, a device that will milk a large number of cows simultaneously.
As the faux invasion occurs, the film bobs among residents of the town and we see their reactions. Unfortunately, their responses are never particularly surprising or clever. Worse, they are all similar. A chipper schoolteacher rethinks her engagement. A wealthy wife rethinks her marriage. A minister rethinks his faith. It’s a pattern that’s not hard to detect.
There are other issues, too. Dialogue, music and situations often seem anachronistic — the town’s mayor writes a song that never would have existed in 1938, for example. Director and co-writer Jody Lambert seems to have trouble with pacing and mood. A sense of urgency never kicks in, even when fear starts overtaking the townsfolk. Instead, everything plays out in such mild-mannered fashion that it threatens to evaporate before your eyes.
Back to the cast: There are hilarious performers in here whose gifts just aren’t utilized. Tony Hale, so funny on HBO’s “Veep,” plays the mayor. Dan Bakkedahl, a scene-stealer on CBS’s “Life in Pieces,” is the minister. You’ve also got Anna Camp (“Pitch Perfect”), Heather Burns (“Miss Congeniality”) and Erika Alexander (TV’s “Living Single”): These are laugh-out-loud people caught in a meek film that’s afraid to ruffle any feathers.
Randy Cordova, USA TODAY Network
Gravitas Ventures presents a film directed by Jody Lambert and written by Lambert and Michael Dowling. No MPAA rating. Running time: 91 minutes. Now showing at Facets Cinematheque and on demand.