In the climax of Morning Glory, Rachel McAdams is dressed in a flesh-colored, diaphanous cocktail dress, its halter top and tight bodice giving way to spilling tulle. This is the kind of dress a screen heroine wears when a slow-building love plot is coming to a head; it is the perfect costume for, say, leaving one suitor to run across Manhattan to another. Which McAdams’s Becky ultimately does, although the competitors for her attention are professional rather than personal. Becky is wearing this get-up—the modern-day equivalent of something Kim Novak might have worn in Picnic—to an interview for what is referred to multiple times as “the biggest job in broadcasting.” However absurd, the outfit’s also appropriate: The only love Morning Glory truly cares about is the passionate but sexless amour fou between a girl and her work.
Becky is toiling away on a small-time show in Jersey—turning off prospective dates by not turning off her constantly ringing phone; waking up for tomorrow’s editorial meetings before tonight’s last call—when her position is suddenly eliminated, leaving her with not a whole lot to occupy her time and overactive mind. Unemployed for roughly 90 seconds of screen time (which includes a nicely modulated exchange with her passive-aggressively overcritical mom, played by Patti D’Arbanville, who dismisses Becky’s ambition as “embarrassing”), she jumps at an offer to take a job nobody wants, executive producing the failing morning show, Daybreak.
Facing hostile skepticism from her network boss (Jeff Goldblum, stealing scenes on autopilot) and a pill-popping anchor diva (Diane Keaton, gamely making the most of a role that mocks her for being old), Becky swiftly proves her worth by firing Daybreak’s pervy male co-host and replacing him with Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford). A grizzled evening-news vet who only takes the gig to satisfy a contractual loophole, Mike feels daytime TV is beneath him and refuses to participate in the cutesy segments that are the show’s bread and butter.
And so the film’s major conflict is set: “The world has been debating news vs. entertainment for years, and guess what? You lost!” Becky chides former war correspondent Mike. In need of a ratings boost in order to secure the show’s future, Becky starts scripting stunts for maximum YouTube potential, while Mike’s fuck-this attitude increasingly seeps onto air. Ultimately, the two push-and-pull toward a compromise between “bran and doughnuts” (or the newsertainment equivalent). You could call their snappy back-and-forth “banter”—at one point, Mike defines banter as “from the Latin word for ‘jibber like a moron’ ”—but this is hardly high screwball: McAdams is mostly a perky and patient pitcher, setting Ford up for all the best lines.
And still, McAdams, who has rarely lived up to the ingenue potential evident six years ago in The Notebook, gives a real star turn here, which is all the more remarkable considering the apparent effort director Roger Michell took to avoid the visual shorthand (beaming, beauty-filtered close-ups, dowdy-to-dazzling post-makeover toe-to-head pans, etc.) that the Katherine Heigls of the world use as crutches. Becky is designed as a kind of live-action comic-strip character—a hot-bodied Cathy with the defeated hunch of Charlie Brown and Betty Cooper’s shaggy-sensible bangs and ponytail—whose haplessness is oft patronizingly branded as “adorable.” Michell favors wide tracking shots that more often than not frame McAdams from afar, the better to show her full body in graceful, near-slapstick action. He saves the close-ups for when McAdams can make the most of them: In one particularly striking scene, the realization of Becky’s place in the dating evolutionary order washes over her face, and completely changes the tenor of the character’s ambition. But after a moment like that, Michell usually launches a montage set to a truly terrible pop-rock “classic.”
Such stock tricks of the genre do little to make up for the fact that Glory‘s central non-professional romance is cursory and unconvincing. The love interest here is a hunky Patrick Wilson, who forces Becky to put her BlackBerry in the freezer before he’ll have sex with her. That there’s no sexual charge between McAdams and Wilson might be a chemical problem between the actors, but it could also be intentional: Work is what turns on Morning Glory’s most charismatic characters, to the point that outside relationships seem dull in comparison. That idea, and Michell’s occasional counterintuitive stylistic choices, sometimes make you forget that you’re watching a generic product.