The Secret Art of Light Comedy, and the Secret Release of THE REWRITE

With Fast and the Furious 7 making something like 500 million dollars worldwide in four days, it’s no surprise that Hugh Grant’s genial romantic comedy The Rewrite was unceremoniously dumped:  A Video-On-Demand release coupled with a token one-week stay in a Manhattan theater purely for contractual reasons, followed by a DVD release so bankrupt I couldn't even find this one in F.Y.E. or Target. The pleasant revelation is that The Rewrite proves to be Grant’s best film in some time, an appealing, slightly quirky comedy about redemption, mature romance, and higher education that has gone the same desultory route as so many intelligently-made-yet-not-Oscar-bait films reviewed in this space (Life of Crime, Adult World, Redemption): absolutely nowhere.

The film details Oscar-winning screenwriter Keith Michaels (Grant) taking against his will a teaching gig at Binghamton, SUNY, after all Hollywood opportunities have dried up.  He realizes his small notoriety is the one thing going for him, and ultimately chooses his female students for physical attractiveness and his male students for their inability to be a threat to him in pursuit of said females’ attention.  However, his Department’s Ethics Officer (a wry Allison Janney) is wary of him (and of his blithe dismissals to her of Jane Austen at a faculty mixer);a single-mom (a beguiling Mariso Tomei) hustles her way into his class  and provides an honest, adult brain for him to engage with; and a 19 year-old student (a smartly underplaying Bella Heathcote) seems much more in control of their brief affair than him.  Meanwhile, he struggles to psychologically deal with different student personalities (The Whisperer, The Star-Wars-Worshipper) as he maladroitly attempts to get a sequel to his one hit off the ground.  It may not sound like much, but that proves The Rewrite’s hole card; the film doesn’t batter us with narrative.

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The Rewrite is warm and pleasant, never going clammy or mawkish despite several moments potentially begging for such treatment.  For a high-concept Hollywood comedy, it’s rather sane and genial. It never takes what’s going on very seriously, nor does it trash its concept.  The film never really sharpens its focus.  It simply resolves, with surprisingly little drama and consistently underplayed conflict. While lacking a bit of narrative flow, The Rewrite’s loose structure allows Director Marc Lawrence to capture many pleasing performance moments from the entire cast.

Marisa Tomei has been a trustworthy character actress for some time now, and she nails her role as a smart, chattering, big hearted divorcée, a role that likely wasn't flashy enough to attract a Bullock or a Kidman.  Perhaps that’s a kind way of saying it’s a bit underwritten, but Tomei keeps the character lively and upbeat without being cloying.  What’s most agreeable is she’s clearly 50, and so is Grant, and the film happily doesn’t make anything of this; while Grant is willing to bed a 19 year-old student within hours of arriving in Binghamton, there is no question of Tomei’s attractiveness to him; nothing of their growing connection is belabored, and nowhere is he shown to be "courageous" for being drawn to a woman his own age. Grant seems comfortable accepting a bit of aging, and one may forgets that for all his generally likable stuttering-charmer shtick he’s actually an extraordinary actor, going back to turns in Maurice and Bitter Moon in the 80s and early 90s and continued efforts to play actual characters in films such as An Awfully Big Adventure and Small Time Crooks.

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If age hasn't purified Grant, it also hasn't caused him to resort to big, broad strokes. Grant in a bigger-budget romantic comedy probably has to be “Hugh Grant,” the persona he has become to the audience in the last 20 years, but his confident timing and accomplished performance playing this friendly cad pulls the film together. Lawrence and Grant don’t unduly manipulate us to create some kind of empathetic identification with his character’s lazy mischief throughout, and Grant doesn’t do the reaching for sympathy he and most movie stars are guilty of on occasion.

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If anything, we identify with Tomei, whose character has had to deal with enough in life she’s willing to work a bit to try to salvage a damaged guy who  has some degree of quality to him, simply because her life would be more boring without him.  Tomei is more relaxed a performer this century than when she began in the late 80s, and hers is a breezy, comedic performance.  She amiably prods Grant in the right direction, and the film amiably prods us, too.  The film’s key strength is its lack of aggression; the slightly offbeat characterizations are enough to draw you into the characters' lives and make them feel real in a world where abrasive high-concepts like the loud, face-smashing The Heat and Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart’s foolish Get Hard are the formula for comedic success.

This is Grant’s fourth collaboration with director Lawrence; if this doesn’t bring up memories of Hawks and Cary Grant, or Eastwood and Leone, or even Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham, well, they have a nice decent 50/50 success ratio going on. I’m reminded of what Pauline Kael wrote of Robert Altman upon (negatively) reviewing Images:

“[Altman] scores an astonishing fifty percent – one on, one off.  M*A*S*H was followed by Brewster McCloud, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller has now been followed by Images.  I can hardly wait for his next movie.”

Two Weeks’ Notice was strained, but Music and Lyrics (where Grant wisely laid back and played straight man to engagingly loony Drew Barrymore) was a charmer. Did You Hear About the Morgans? was horrible and now The Rewrite is a pleasing, laid-back comedy.  To parrot Kael, I like The Rewrite enough that I fully dread their next collaboration.

 

  • Bill K

    Faint praise need not be damning. It’s important to notice that the real pleasures afforded by this film are minor pleasures (“lack of aggression”); that established, we can then enjoy them fully for what they are. My one quibble with your review is that you might have mentioned that the young actors playing Grant’s students are uniformly good. Their contribution to the whole experience is essential.