Brave New Jersey (NR)

Comedy 91 min. August 4, 2017
By Chris Packham
On October 30, 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting System aired Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio drama, which was essentially found-footage horror -- radio fiction imitating the form of radio documentary -- and which famously inspired real-world panic. If you scrape off all the crusty barnacles of historical anecdote, Welles' broadcast holds up. It's sophisticated and surprisingly convincing, even to a jaded contemporary listener. As the characters in director Jody Lambert's Brave New Jersey react with terror to the radio drama, it's easy to imagine perfectly rational, intelligent adults being fooled as Welles' announcers cut to panicked field correspondents and then to shocking statements from Washington officials. ("I would never fall for that!" you may shout, before downloading a Word macro that encrypts your documents folder and demands a Bitcoin ransom.)

The film has an outstanding cast of mainly comic performers, including Tony Hale, Mel Rodriguez, Dan Bakkedahl and Anna Camp, so the weightlessness of the script is a letdown. After Welles' broadcast, the townsfolk of Lullabye, New Jersey, self-actualize in panic. The pompous dairy baron immediately abandons his wife and children for a mistress; the burned-out reverend (Bakkedahl) experiences a fiery renewal of his faith; wilting Mayor Clark Hill (Hale) attempts to rally the town and keep people from turning on one another. The residents divide into first responders who want to fight for the community and cowardly self-preservationists who take flight. Schoolteacher Peg (Camp), the sharpest character, does both, joining the town's defensive posse and ditching the dullard she's supposed to marry. Lambert aims for gentle, Lake Wobegon–ish nostalgia, but the jokes never land, the undifferentiated small town confers no sense of location, and its eccentrics aren't particularly weird.
Jody Lambert Anna Camp, Evan Jonigkeit, Sam Jaeger, Tony Hale, Mel Rodriguez Michael Dowling, Jody Lambert Gravitas Ventures

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