Morning Glory's Rachel McAdams: When Perky Makes Perfect

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Paramount Pictures

Two dream scenarios for a promising actor: to do honorable work in a terrific movie, or to be the only terrific thing in an iffy one. Which is better? The first kind gets you Academy Award nominations; the second, maybe, a star career. With her performance as Becky Potter, the network TV producer in the new workplace comedy Morning Glory, Rachel McAdams just landed in Column B.

For most of the past decade, McAdams, 32, has been an attractive movie ornament: supporting roles in Mean Girls, Wedding Crashers, State of Play, Sherlock Holmes, leads in the popular mystico-weepies The Notebook and The Time Traveler's Wife. If she may never graduate to the super-serious category of Oscar bait, it's because her persona is free of neurosis; with the least provocation, her face can detonate into a dimple festival; critics writing about McAdams find their fingers irresistibly typing the word "perky." She infuses her monologues with a musical fervor, as if she were channeling Julie Andrews. (In Morning Glory, more than one person interrupts her, mid-speech, to ask her, "Are you gonna sing?") I'm saying her Adorability Quotient is off the charts. If being ingratiating is a crime, she'd be shot at sunrise. But this good nature doesn't seem forced; her gifts as an actress complement her appeal as an all-American (actually, all-Canadian) girl. The character of Becky is an ideal fit for these qualities, and good thing too, since McAdams has to carry the film nearly solo.

Morning Glory is a cut above most other recent light fare, but not a prime cut. The director, Roger Michell, has made a couple of excellent indie films (Persuasion, The Mother) and two charmingly soft-centered comedies about improbable friendships (Notting Hill, Venus), but this time his work is confined to guiding McAdams' finely calibrated performance and the broader work of her colleagues. The writer, Aline Brosh McKenna, previously confected the dismal romantic comedies 27 Dresses and Laws of Attraction, plus the OK adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada. This might be her solidest job, if only because she's borrowing from two towering James L. Brooks projects about women who produce news shows: the wonderful workplace sitcom Mary Tyler Moore and the 1987 film Broadcast News. A pale, genial knockoff of the two, McKenna's script posits Becky as having the sunniness of the Moore character and the drive of Holly Hunter in Broadcast News.

Since she was a kid, watching Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel, Becky has wanted to produce the Today Show. She's on that road as the film begins, supervising a local talk-fest called Good Morning, New Jersey. Abruptly dismissed from that gig, she's hired at a lower salary (impossible) to run a national show, IBC's Daybreak, whose ratings are mired below Today, ABC's Good Morning America and even "that thing on CBS." No question, Daybreak is in trouble. No stars will come on the show. The weatherman is a sad goof, the lifestyle specialist is functionally illiterate. The passable female host, Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton), is saddled with a sex addict for a desk partner (Modern Family's Ty Burrell); he likes websites devoted to sexy feet and half-clad grannies. The show's viewership isn't much to brag about either. "Half the people watching have lost their remote," IBC's news boss (Jeff Goldblum) tells Becky. "The other half are waiting for their nurses to turn them over."

If Daybreak's audience is in its dotage, then Becky, after she fires the perv, has the perfect replacement: Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), who matches Colette in advanced years but lacks her telegenic temperament. A hardened hard-news veteran, he boasts that in his long career he's survived both Bosnian shrapnel and lunch with Dick Cheney. What he refuses to do is the fluffy banter mandatory for A.M. fare. Mostly, he grouses and glowers at the indignity of it all; think CBS's Bob Simon, but with a sociopath's edge. Bizarrely, Becky never urges Mike to use his lifetime of contacts to corral important guests; nor does she order him to change the ludicrous striped socks he flashes each morning. When Becky visits Mike's apartment the night before the first show, she finds out he's an accomplished chef, but doesn't ask him to cook up something on camera. That's a strand the movie takes another full hour yanking into the plot — while Becky concentrates on saving the show and realizing her dream.

Ages ago, in the 1930s and '40s, romantic comedies proposed a battle of equals: the woman was likely to be at least as smart, successful, resourceful and resilient as the man. ( The Lady Eve: I rest my case.) Now that women have nearly achieved parity in the workplace, they've lost it at the movies; the rom-com has misplaced its edge along with most of its wit. Unlike other entries in this damaged genre — every picture with Katherine Heigl and most of those starring Sandra Bullock, Amy Adams, Kate Hudson, Anne Hathaway, you name her — Morning Glory stops short of saying that its main character is a loser because she's in love with her career and not, at the moment, marriage. Indeed, Becky's designated romance with a guy (Patrick Wilson) in the network's real news division serves a perfunctory subplot, subordinate to her determination to get a good job and do a great one.

Watch Becky in her first-day brainstorm session with the staff. She's bombarded with a dozen simultaneous suggestions that no mortal could filter, let alone rule on. Yet Becky does, spitting out a sensible answer for each idea. Turns out she's the perfect boss: efficient, uncowable, decisive, friendly. If Morning Glory is nothing special, it does manage something rare in movies: to capture the pressure-cooker energy of office life. When Becky aced her first challenge at the staff meeting, a couple of people in my audience applauded her achievement, as if she'd just flattened the villain or won the big game. (William Hurt to Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, after they team successfully on a spot news report: "That was like great sex!") Here's a woman for whom fulfillment is defined by her success at work. (Plus, she gets the guy.) Is that so bad? Morning Glory says it doesn't make her a freak; it makes her a heroine.

Smitten moviegoers may have the same response to McAdams's Becky as they did to Emma Stone's Olive in the recent Easy A. Both are bright, sensible young women who think they can't attract a guy — except for every male in the audience. I'm tempted to go further and compare McAdams' performance, in its effortless seductiveness against all odds, to Katharine Hepburn's star-making turn in a 1933 comedy about a beguiling young actress. Actually, Hepburn won her first Oscar for that movie. It was called Morning Glory.