'Brave New Jersey': Film Review

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures
Too bland to be funny.

The 1938 Orson Welles broadcast of 'War of the Worlds' brings out the best and worst of the residents of a small town in Jody Lambert's comedy-drama.

The widespread panic that reportedly ensued in response to Orson Welles’ Oct. 30, 1938, Mercury Theater radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds would seem to be promising material for a screen comedy. Unfortunately, director/co-screenwriter Jody Lambert’s Brave New Jersey squanders its inspiration. Depicting the reactions of a group of small-town residents for whom the event becomes a life-altering experience, the film wastes several talented performers with its low-key, rambling humor and one-dimensional characters.

“Everything you’re about to see is true,” we’re informed in tongue-in-cheek style at the beginning of the film set in the fictional small town of Lullaby, N.J., population 506, whose motto reads “Where strangers are friends and no one is a stranger.” The town’s biggest claim to fame is the “Rotolactor,” a machine that can milk 15 cows at once being marketed by local businessman Paul (Sam Jaeger), who has dreams of financial glory.

Upon hearing the fateful broadcast, the residents begin to panic and reassess their life choices. Mayor Clark (Tony Hale) professes his love for Lorraine (Heather Burns), who’s married to Paul. Paul immediately ditches her and their two children and runs into the arms of his mistress. A reverend (Dan Bakkedahl) who’s lately suffered a crisis of faith rediscovers his spirituality. Schoolteacher Peg (Anna Camp of Pitch Perfect) breaks it off with her fiancé (Matt Oberg) and discovers her inner warrior in the face of alien invaders. And an elderly World War I veteran (Raymond J. Barry) uses the Martians as a call to arms and rallies the townspeople to man the barricades.

Attempting to combine romantic drama with satirical comedy, the film succeeds in neither department. We care little about the hapless mayor’s lingering love for the woman who got away, nor for her marital issues. Indeed, most of the characters and situations are trivial and uncompelling. Only the absurdly gung-ho military man garners consistent laughs, and that’s largely due to the committed performance by Barry, who uses his trademark intensity to excellent effect. The waste of Hale and Bakkedahl, whose comic chops are on ample display in Veep but who underplay in the film to little effect, feels particularly egregious. The film also suffers from the technical limitations imposed by its modest budget, although the costumes and production design do a fine job of conveying the proper period atmosphere.

Brave New Jersey might have been reasonably entertaining if it had committed itself to more lunacy. Instead it has the feel of a mildly amusing soap opera, its old-fashioned cinematic style reflecting the vintage era in which it’s set.

Production company: The Shot Clock
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Tony Hale, Anna Camp, Sam Jaeger, Heather Burns, Dan Bakkedahl, Raymond J. Barry, Erika Alexander, Mel Rodriguez
Director: Jody Lambert
Screenwriters: Michael Dowling, Jody Lambert
Producers: Jen Roskind, Taylor Williams
Executive producers: Denise Chamian, Luke Daniels, Brandon K. Hogan, Alan Pao
Director of photography: Corey Walter
Production designer: Chloe Arbiture
Editor: Matt Diezel
Costume designer: Vanessa Porter
Composers: Dennis Lambert, Kelly Winrich, Matthew Logan Vasquez
Casting: Dennis Chamian

86 minutes