Hugh Grant does what Hugh Grant does best in The Rewrite, a lightweight rom-com that could easily be mistaken for Music and Lyrics on the surface. That comes as no surprise given it’s the fourth collaboration between Grant and writer-director Marc Lawrence, and it could be their strongest outing to date. While it’s neither a masterpiece of gender politics or contemporary romantic relations nor designed to elicit belly laughs, it is a pleasant diversion for fans of the form.
The Rewrite also is a marked improvement over 2009’s execrable Did You Hear About the Morgans?, and it’s firmly in Grant’s wheelhouse. After so many films with Grant, Lawrence clearly knows how to best exploit his star’s charms and it serves both the actor and the story well (assuming his awkward man-child act is your cup of tea). It won’t be the second coming of Four Weddings and a Funeral, but if audiences forgive the duo for their last outing, the film could find modest success in the adult demographic where middle-aged romance often gets short shrift.
And that’s one of the more interesting aspects of the film. Grant’s fussy young charmer days are well behind him and in The Rewrite he embraces his maturity. It could be argued he’s simply doing an older, more jaded, burnt-out version of his younger self and the characters he played, and in many ways he is. But watching him deal with that, and watching his flustered Englishman Abroad shtick called out for the tired routine it’s become, is nearly subversive in its wit. Though it’s not at the JCVD level of self-awareness it’s close.
Hollywood screenwriter Keith Michaels (Grant) is at the stage in his career where he can’t ride the coattails of his one shining moment anymore. He’s nearly broke, can’t get work, lost his wife to the director of the film that won him an Oscar and he hasn’t spoken to his teenage son in a year. He’s also a vaguely sexist womanizer desperately trying to hold on to his youth, and possibly a high- functioning alcoholic. When his agent sets him up with a teaching job in isolated (at least to Keith’s Angelino) Binghamton, N.Y., he reluctantly takes it, figuring he’ll fob off as much as possible, write a sequel in the peace of the college town and get back to business. If you think Keith’s not going to learn the value of teaching, inspire his pupils, find true, mature love and how to be a better man, you haven’t seen enough movies.
At its core The Rewrite is a typical fish-out-of-water romance about a man learning what it means to be adult and the desperate need to take advantage of second chances when they’re given. Keith’s emotional foil is single mother Holly Carpenter (Marisa Tomei), a woman working two jobs to go back to school and try her hand at creativity. She’s the counterpoint to the sexy undergrad Karen (Bella Heathcote, Dark Shadows), with whom Keith enters into an inappropriate relationship.
As Keith gets to discussing script structure with his class he could probably teach this one, it’s so by the book. The film recalls Liberal Arts initially for its aggressive academic and literary tone, but it quite quickly settles down into standard rom-com convention (with a few gentle barbs about Hollywood thrown in for good measure), hitting all the emotional and redemptive beats at the expected times — though Lawrence skips the race to the airport montage in favor of a leisurely bus ride back to campus.
The secondary characters that populate this town are precisely the archetypes expected in films like this, and were the supporting cast not so strong they’d be completely forgettable. There’s the henpecked (“I have a wife and four daughters. I have no opinions”) but weepy department head, Dr. Lerner (J. K. Simmons, always a welcome addition); the wacky Shakespeare professor and nosy neighbor, Jim (Chris Elliott); and Mary Weldon (Allison Janney, also welcome at all times but who only gets to act imperious here), head of ethics committee and raging Jane Austen fan. In addition to Karen’s oversexed girl trying to be a woman, the class is filled out with the requisite nerds, geeks (a Star Wars nut, a writing prodigy), vapid beauties who learn to value themselves and angry undergrads who think they know it all that provide the comic relief when required. Tomei is painfully underwritten; she doesn’t have The Wrestler-type material to work with, but she manages to bring a lively spark to Holly nonetheless and she nails Holly’s off-handedly wise but hopeful attitude without tipping over into saccharine.
Production: Castle Rock Entertainment, Reserve Room
Cast: Hugh Grant, Marisa Tomei, Bella Heathcote, J. K. Simmons, Allison Janney, Chris Elliot
Director: Marc Lawrence
Screenwriter: Marc Lawrence
Producer: Liz Glotzer, Martin Shafer
Executive producer: David Kaplan
Director of photography: Jonathan Brown
Production designer: Ola Maslik
Costume designer: Gary Jones
Editor: Ken Eluto
Music: Clyde Lawrence
No rating, 106 minutes