“I’m not out there looking for films. On the whole, I’m out of show business,” Hugh Grant claimed last fall, continuing his long trend of trashing his day job. “It’s miserable. It’s a very cruel world, no-one should go into it. I’m always getting cousins and friends, and daughters and sons of friends…wanting to talk about going into acting and I always say just don’t do it at all. It’s brutal.” And yet, here is Grant teaming for the fourth time with writer/director Marc Lawrence (“Two Weeks Notice,” “Music And Lyrics,” “Did You Hear About The Morgans?“) for yet another stroll down Rom Com Lane. However, the actor’s reticence to even get in front of camera serves his character well in this softly simmering flick, where both Grant’s character, and the actor himself, are more than happy to let other people do the heavy lifting.
Screenwriter Keith Michaels (Grant) has ridden the wave of Hollywood success as far as it can take him. After winning an Oscar for “Paradise Misplaced,” so began a gradual decline, that saw his touch for hit material leave his fingertips just as fast as it arrived, to the point where his movie pitches are out of date with what the studios are looking for, and his bank account doesn’t have enough money to pay the electric bills. And so with few other options left, Keith accepts an interim job across the country at Binghamton University where he will teach screenwriting. He doesn’t really want the gig in the same manner that Grant probably doesn’t want to be in the movie, and the combination of fiction and reality strangely works.
Arriving in town, Keith makes his priorities clear. He’s barely finished his hamburger at Wendy’s when he eyeballs a bunch of cute university girls, and winds up bedding Karen (Bella Heathcote, and yes, she will wind up in his class). When he gets the script submissions from potential students for his class, from which he has to pick ten, he instead goes through the university directory and selects the hottest girls from among the contenders, along with a couple of dorky dudes to keep things honest. And his stated intention for the next few months in Binghamton is to do “as little as possible.” But that’s until he meets Holly (Marisa Tomei), a single, middle-aged Mom, going to back to school, juggling a few jobs, and whose sunny disposition is the complete mirror to Keith’s well-worn and well-practiced general disinterest in anybody besides himself. And then you can guess what will happen next.
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And while the general structure of “The Rewrite” is hardly anything new, the movie somehow manages to draw you in. Part of it is the truly surprising pace and tone, which is a far cry from the louder, faster, and generally more mayhem-fueled comedies (and romantic comedies) these days. Perhaps soaking up the collegiate air of Binghamton, Lawrence is never in any real particular rush, but because he knows exactly where his story is going at all times, he’s able to keep the goal clear, and let the actors breathe a bit and shape out their roles. And indeed, the ensemble truly prop up the film in ways that Grant — who plays his reluctant professor appropriately reluctantly — refuses to.
As the dean of the department, J.K. Simmons‘ Dr. Lerner is a seemingly tough ex-Marine who is completely emasculated at home by his wife and four daughters, and yet for all his complaints about their quirks and constant fussing over every aspect of his life, he loves them so deeply he breaks down in tears whenever he talks about his family. Allison Janney‘s Jane Austen-obsessed Mary Welton is a stern professor with not many fans on the faculty or in the student body, while Chris Elliot is a sweet, recently divorced Shakespeare teacher. While there’s not much on the page, these seasoned pros make their characters more pleasurable than they have any right to be. Simmons is great fun, while it’s a blast watching Janney’s icy facade try not to broker any friendship with the well-meaning, but often misguided Keith. And Elliot’s goofball charm kind of makes you wish he was in movies more often. But the MVP of them all is Tomei who, tasked with being the central beam of light in the movie, shines brightly with her easy-to-love Holly.
Yet the performances don’t skate over the film’s weaknesses, which are significant, even if packaged in an easily swallowed morsel. Heathcote’s Karen fares worst of all, introduced as a sexually empowered young woman only to suddenly change course as an immature shrew when things don’t go her way. If there was a bigger arc, it got left on the cutting room floor. And while the chemistry is clearly there between Grant and Tomei, the script never really sells their transition from professor/student to potential partners. “The Rewrite” refers to Keith’s revelations about the important things in his life, but aside from a single phone call to a son he hasn’t spoken to in a year, and giving words of encouragement to Billy (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), the “Star Wars“-loving nerd in his class, it’s not clear what Holly sees in Keith, except that he eventually acts like a decent human being who becomes actively interested in his job. But again, the low-key nature of the enterprise and the winsome turns by everybody involved keeps “The Rewrite” ambling along so nicely, it wears down your resistance.
And really, can you hate a movie that manages to reference both Elaine May and “Clueless“? And those two signposts are a bit indicative of Marc Lawrence’s film itself. On the one hand, there is a desire to present a more grown-up movie about middle-aged relationships, contrasted with the flightier nature of random hook-ups (partially explaining the wonky treatment of Karen), but that is forced to butt heads with the expectations of a Hugh Grant Romantic Comedy, and the various scenarios that must ensue. And so you have “The Rewrite,” which feels like it had a rewrite at some point, perhaps muddying the waters of the film’s larger intentions. But there’s enough from both halves — the more original dramedic vehicle and the less imaginative, predictable, mainstream-aimed entertainment — to make for one wobbly, yet enjoyable movie, if you just put your guard down enough to let it in. [B-]