Don McKellar’s The Grand Seduction is as old-fashioned as a cobblestone — and just about as mysterious. Everything about it — including its plot — feels lived in. This is cinema as comfort food. It’s not that the film is a Canadian English-language remake of the 2003 Canadian French-language film called Seducing Doctor Lewis. (Chances are most of us never saw the original.) It’s that it feels like a film from an earlier era — an art house offering from 20-plus years ago. This is the kind of film that we still see glimmers of in period movies like Dear Frankie (2004), Ladies in Lavender (2004) and even An Education (2009) — all unassuming movies about people adjusting to a changing world. To call a movie like this “formulaic” is to miss the point, because its intention is to play to a formula. Its aim is to please, not to startle. It doesn’t plow new ground, but it offers familiar pleasures of no little charm. Sometimes that’s enough. When the star is Brendan Gleeson, it may be more than enough.
The premise here is that the once-thriving fishing village of Ticklehead is now a ghost of its former self. Forbidden to commercially fish in these waters, the few remaining — mostly aged — inhabitants exist from month to month on welfare checks. It’s a grim, dispiriting existence, but there might be one path to what at least looks like salvation — getting an oil company to consider Ticklehead for the location of their new waste-processing plant. Yes, this sounds like a bad idea, but all the locals see is the prospect of jobs reviving their little community. In fact, the chief architect of all this, Murray French (Gleeson), only sees positives. (“They make jobs!” is his answer to the question of what the plant makes.) But one of the requirements for getting the contract is that the town has to have a doctor in residence. As luck — and contrived writing — would have it, the town’s mayor just happens to have a job in customs at the nearby airport. And he happens to be working when wet-behind-the-ears Dr. Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch) tries to sneak some cocaine into Canada. Rather than bust Lewis, he proposes the young man spend a month as doctor on Ticklehead.
A month will solve nothing, of course. The idea is to convince the young man that Ticklehead is the best place on earth and get him to stay. How? By remaking the island into the image of everything he likes. He likes cricket? Well, they’ll start a cricket team — no matter that no one understands the game. He likes fusion jazz? They’ll take it up. And if he really is all that into cocaine? “We’re down with it,” Murray assures him. Yes, it’s every bit as preposterous as it sounds, and it only gets more so as it goes along. But at the same time, The Grand Seduction becomes ever more beguiling as you come to know and like the characters. After a while it’s the audience that’s being seduced as much (or more) than Lewis. And it takes some seduction, since every aspect of the plot is morally sketchy — from the oil company plant to the improbable snow-job on Lewis. That everything turns out to be for the best — as far as the story takes us — doesn’t change this.
What makes all this agreeable — as long as you don’t think too hard — is the easy chemistry between the rascally Gleeson and the absurdly innocent Kitsch. It’s impossible not to like them, and equally impossible not to think that Kitsch’s innocence isn’t going to change Gleeson along the way. Nice supporting turns from Gordon Pinsent and Liane Balaban are helpful, while a couple of large comic set-pieces work better than they have any right to. OK, sure, this isn’t a great film. It’s not going to be on anybody’s “Best of” list, but it’s a pleasing diversion. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material and drug references.