'Write When You Get Work': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Robert Elswit
A great-looking mess.

Finn Wittrock and Rachel Keller play former lovers from the wrong side of the tracks in Stacy Cochran's oddly pitched love story.

An outer-borough grifter finds a rich Manhattanite who doesn't even need to be conned in Write When You Get Work, Stacy Cochran's peculiar blend of crime flick and class-conscious love story. Boasting a strong cast and stronger Super 16 lensing by the great Robert Elswit, the picture benefits from a want-to-like-it factor that may carry some viewers through a scenario that grows increasingly shaky from the second act onward. Marking Cochran's return to the director's chair after 18 years, it seems unlikely to much surpass the limited success of her 1992 effort My New Gun and the 1996 Winona Ryder vehicle Boys.

Finn Wittrock and Rachel Keller play Jonny and Ruth, working-class kids who grew up in some unnamed part of the New York metro area where proximity to the waterfront isn't an indicator of status or wealth. In a dreamy prologue, their young-lust Eden is interrupted by cops and an unplanned pregnancy.

Cut to nine years later, long after their paths have diverted and their child was put up for adoption. Ruth is a striver now, having remade herself and found work in the admissions office of a ritzy girls' school. Jonny continues his old lifestyle, dressing his new girlfriend in things that fell off the backs of trucks. After he sees Ruth at a wake, though, Jonny can't help but stalk his way back into her life.

He breaks into her tiny uptown apartment, then lectures her about the inadequacy of her locks. (The unspoken message being, "How do you get along without me?") Jonny begins spending time in the neighborhood, casually pitching robbery ideas to an old buddy who's now the doorman at a luxury apartment building. When he notices that two girls in the building attend Ruth's school, bigger gears start to turn in Jonny's head.

Those kids' parents are a wreck. Dad (James Ransone) is a finance jerk who's about to be indicted for the usual crimes; his wife Nan (Emily Mortimer), worried that their assets will be seized by the feds, is unsuccessfully trying to get friends to hide her cash and jewelry.

In his effort to insinuate himself into every part of Ruth's life, Jonny (rather unbelievably) crashes a small brunch gathering hosted by the school's headmaster. He finds himself alone with Nan, where Wittrock musters a credible-enough air of good-looking entitlement to keep us from laughing when Ruth exposes herself to Jonny in a bathroom.

But this unexpected intimacy isn't nearly enough to justify the noir scenario that follows, which might have been credible with the addition of just one or two more smartly written scenes between the two. As it happens here, Nan asks a total stranger if he'll take her most treasured possessions, putting them somewhere until the heat on her husband has died down. If sex or money is expected in repayment, nobody is tacky enough to mention it.

Having stumbled into a weird kind of bonanza, Jonny digs in deeper, showing up at Ruth's school and pretending he has a daughter to enroll. The movie is unclear about how he expects his contradictory goals to play out — surely he doesn't think he can swindle one of the school's most important families while simultaneously romancing a midlevel employee — but Wittrock's self-confidence makes logic irrelevant. Meanwhile, we have little trouble identifying with Ruth, who is desperate not to be associated with Jonny's sort of people.

Instead of focusing on this conflict, Cochran now gets caught up in the mechanics of a scam that makes no sense, with the script forcing Jonny to stage risky and elaborate hoaxes well after he should be skipping town with a car full of Nan's loot. The movie is unprepared for the crime-flick beats it tries to hit, and if Jonny's plan is a head-scratcher, the multiple twists that follow are even tougher to accept. The film contorts into a weird sort of Robin Hood, romantic-reunion fable, leaving everyone but the rich crooks happy. A nice idea, maybe, but not one many viewers are likely to buy.

Production company: George H. Price Productions
Cast: Finn Wittrock, Rachel Keller, Emily Mortimer, James Ransone, Scott Cohen, Jessica Hecht, Andrew Schulz, Tess Frazer, Afton Williamson, Zarif Kabier
Director-screenwriter: Stacy Cochran
Producers: Alison Beckett, Stacy Cochran, Adam Gibbs, Jesse Ozeri
Executive producers: Raife Burchell, Karoline Durr, Eric Heffron
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: Michael Fitzgerald
Costume designer: Samantha Hawkins
Editor: Nicholas Ramirez
Casting director: Todd Thaler
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Sales: Steven C. Beer, FWRV

99 minutes