From a young age, Orson Welles was known as a wunderkind, staging Shakespeare plays in his teens before assembling the Mercury Theater on radio. Then in 1938, Orson Welles staged a radio version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds that reportedly caused a panic for millions of listeners believing the fictionalized events of the radio play to be real. Whether or not those reports were accurate is the subject for debate to this day, but provides the inspiration for the new film from director Jody Lambert, Brave New Jersey. Unfortunately, Brave New Jersey is unable to capitalize on its great premise and strong ensemble cast, languishing on the brink of being interesting for most of its 90-minute running time.
Tony Hale stars as Clark Hill, the mayor of a small New Jersey farm town. Paul Davison (Sam Jaeger) is one of the town’s more prominent citizens and is preparing a debut of his new cow milking machine. That evening, War of the Worlds hits the airwaves and those who tuned in a little late are convinced that the dramatization is a live news event, causing a panic to strike everyone in this quiet little town. Panicked, Paul leaves behind his wife Lorraine (Heather Burns). Meanwhile, the town’s Sheriff Dandy (Mel Rodriguez) is also in a panic and cedes his authority to Captain Ambrose P. Collins (Raymond J. Barry), a World War I veteran ready to rally the citizens to take a stand against the alien invaders. Meanwhile, Reverend Ray Rogers (Dan Bakkedahl) undergoes a revival of his faith with the fictional evidence of alien life providing him with new theological musings. Gender roles are also being flipped during the panic, with Peg Prickett (Anna Camp) asserting herself and turning her back on traditional gender roles much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Chardy (Matt Oberg). It’s certainly a night to remember in this once-quiet New Jersey town.
There’s plenty of room for comedy in the disparate personalities in the midst of freaking out over a piece of fiction, but the script by Jody Lambert and Michael Dowling just never brings the comedy to the forefront. Part of the problem is the fact that there are so many characters swirling around the story that the movie is unable to focus extensively on any particular set of characters. The situation is inherently funny but there’s a sense that Lambert and Dowling are holding the characters back, somewhat fearing to make anyone too unlikable or selfish. Brave New Jersey features such a great premise that it’s heartbreaking that the laughs just aren’t there.
Brave New Jersey is consistently close to maximizing its premise but never coming through. Sadly, the topic of the panic stricken by Orson Welles’ take of War of the Worlds is better handled in an old Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons. People will always be fascinated by the way that Orson Welles trolled the nation and whether or not the panic actually occurred. It’s just a bummer that Brave New Jersey isn’t able to provide a memorable skewering of these disputed events.