This is the image that got me to watch director Jody Lambert’s movie Brave New Jersey on Netflix:
Anna Camp charging forward with a gun while townspeople brandishing makeshift weapons emerge from the fog behind her? You had me at Anna Camp, an actress I will forever adore for that time she found out how hard it is to actually snap someone’s neck on True Blood. But, sure, the gun and the screaming and the fog…it’s all great. What could this movie be about?
“Small-town residents mistake an Orson Welles radio broadcast for news about an alien invasion and are emboldened to act as they await an apocalypse,” says Netflix’s handy-dandy summary. Ah, the famous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, the one that caused a national panic except for the fact that it didn’t, at least not to the extent that we’ve all been led to believe by the newspaper reports from the time. Either way, that could make for a stupid-fun movie, watching a bunch of late 30s small-town folk go crazy. I’m thinking something totally over the top, like maybe Freaks of Nature.
Yeah…..funny thing about that. Well, not so much funny as boring: Brave New Jersey is actually a heaping dose of wholesome, harmless, life-affirming Capracorn made on a micro-budget. It seems to have been filmed on the saddest of sad backlots (actually, somewhere in Tennessee) and the emptiest of empty fields, usually coming off no more convincing than a local stage production of Our Town pieced together with found objects and thrift store clothes. Despite Camp’s prominent placement in the picture, the film actually belongs to Tony Hale and Heather Burns, respectively playing the love-struck mayor and the woman married to the richest man in the town.
We start off watching Hale go about his day, repeatedly disrespected by the people in the town he so clearly adores. Along the way, we pick up just how in love he is with Burns’ completely oblivious character. We also meet Camp as a newly engaged woman seemingly content with her sad station in life, Dan Bakkedahl as the uninspired local preacher, and Mel Rodriguez as the inept sheriff, to name a few. It’s encouraging because those are all recognizable comedic talents, and the sight of Hale as a leading man is at least something different.
What goes wrong, though, is once the story progresses to its inevitable “and then they all totally overreact to a fake broadcast warning them of a looming Martian invasion” point it quickly starts to juggle too many tones. It wildly veers from over-the-top hijinks (a panicked husband leaves his wife and children in the middle of the street, children huddled behind the boarded doors of the school scream whenever someone innocently knocks) to carpe diem character development (it takes the end of the world for Hale, Camp, and others to finally become their true selves).
It’s the type of film that has townspeople charging at nothing through the fog one minute and Tony Hale awkwardly singing a sweet love song to Heather Burns the next, only for that same song to be played in a super cliched country-western arrangement over the closing credits. Their heart is in the right place, and there is a certain charm to such unironic warmth. However, it wears off the longer the film goes on.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Brave New Jersey is something you won’t mind watching with any kids you might have in your life since it’s thoroughly unobjectionable and kind of, sort of teaches them about history, but you won’t walk away from it thinking it was anything more than passable entertainment. As one Letterboxd reviewer put it: “I honestly never thought that watching people reacting to the broadcast of War of the Worlds would be this boring.” Anna Camp, Tony Hale, and Heather Burns at least give it their all.
CRITICAL CONSENSUS RIGHT NOW
What about you? Have you seen Brave New Jersey? Let me know in the comments.