Hugh Grant plays a washed up Hollywood screenwriter who years earlier wrote a blockbuster that touched a lot of people, but now can’t get a job in the business to save his life. He’s running out of money, scrapping by doing edits and punch ups to weak scripts. Then his desperate agent offers him something unexpected: teach screenwriting at a state university in Binghamton, New York, to him a million miles away from where he should be. He scoffs at the idea, but in true Hollywood style, the electricity is turned off to his apartment just as he says no, leaving him literally and figuratively in the dark. Slash-cut to him driving east.
This is the tried and true formula of the breezy, lightweight comedy that The Rewrite clings fervently to throughout, and it’s a formula both led actors are surely familiar with, Grant especially, once again playing a dislikable cad who is redeemed by his special circumstances in the heartwarming ending. It’s not that The Rewrite is bad, it’s just so safe, so bland and so obvious, it simply exists and nothing more. The genre in this film making style owes everything to Grant, that can’t be understated. About A Boy is surely the apex of this ilk with a host of others in tow. Here, it feels like a new song by an old band you liked from a decade ago. Same sound, same story, kinda comforting but you know you’ve long outgrown it.
Grant plays Keith Michaels and when he packs up and moves to the upstate New York town, he doesn’t take it too seriously, despite the cushy job and beautiful Fouresquare home he’s given. On his first night, getting dinner in a fast food joint, he meets Karen (Bella Heathcote), an attractive young student sitting with her friends, who naturally, when hearing his name, knows exactly who is and adores the one film that made him a celebrity. In a twist that’s as curvy as uncooked spaghetti, the two wake up the next morning in his bed. This of course serves no purpose other than to create conflict that can be resolved by good intentions later. Karen is also registered in his class, who themselves are a short group of exacting stereotypes and character tropes, though, since Michaels is given the choice of who he wants in his class (and access to the student files to see their pictures), is populated mostly by runway model-type women and two men so aggressively uncool they are deemed no competition in the new teacher’s eyes, a man in his mid-50s vibing creepy on a whole new level. Of these male students, one, naturally, is a spectacular writer and not only achieves the most success but gains the favor of one said model type, and the other is an aggressively one-dimensional Star Wars fan and so has nothing to say other than nerdy Star Wars references with every single line of dialogue which prompts Michael to suggest he join a frat. You can guess how that turns out because obviously frat boys hate classic sci-fi films so much that they would cause bodily harm to those who do. This is standard movie stuff. The last hold out to the class, and one that had to argue with Michaels to join his lectures, is Holly, a divorced mother, played by eternally chipper Marisa Tomei, and now that you know who she is and what defines her, you have already figured out the entire film.
Written and directed by Marc Lawrence (a graduate of Binghamton), The Rewrite never strays far from the well-worn path of those that came before it, and that might be just the thing some are looking for, like that favorite cozy sweatshirt you put on in the evening after a long day at work. The cast works well and play their parts fully committed and there are some fun moments with J.K. Simmons as an emotional father (30 seconds to tears!) and a surprising appearance by Chris Elliott, both playing campus professionals with little to do but steer Michaels onto the next straight route ahead, but do it with a wink and some charm. This is plain toast and a cup of milk from beginning to end.
That Moment In: The Rewrite
Scene Setup: With tact as sharp as a bowling ball, Michael’s first faculty meet and greet goes predictably wrong. He is introduced to Professor Mary Weldon (Allison Janney), a frigid department head and renowned specialist on author Jane Austen. He immediately, unintentionally, insults her, then inappropriately touches her, and belittles Jane Austen. Not a good start. This sets off the sub-plot of whether Michaels will keep his job, as he is continuously being misunderstood or seen in compromising situations, including an overheard Karen angrily storming out his adjoining office, clearly indicating a relationship that is against school policy. To say the icy Weldon is not a fan of Michaels is an understatement. She wants him removed from the teaching staff and heads a board of inquiry to bring him up on charges unless he freely abandons his post. After much soul-searching, a visit to a famous carousel, and a series of timely events, he sees himself in a different light and believes he can sway the professor to his side. He arranges a one-to-one meeting in her office.
The Scene: (Timestamp 01:33:32) Michaels is feeling invigorated with plans to appeal to her humanity in giving him a second chance. Because Michaels is the hero in this story, Weldon has been portrayed as stuffy, unapproachable and even ridiculous, following a long tradition of Deans and other university authority figures in film. She is meant to be laughed at, framed as elitist and snobby, even from the other faculty members. That changes while in her office. When Michaels pleads his case, she is honest, sensible, diplomatic, and entirely accurate. She further reveals that this is just a persona she presents while at school. Students have an expectation from her and she lives up to that every day, but on her own, she is a passionate, kind, and warm woman. She listens without judgment as Michaels explains that he did come to the campus with the wrong intentions and planned to give it little effort when hired, but throughout the semester, learned much about his capacity as a teacher and a person, realizing that he truly does have a gift that isn’t where he thought it lay, but is in fact at the head of a classroom.
The scene is effective beyond the normal markers any scene of redemption in these types of movies are typically designed to hit. Janney is strong here, reminiscent of the role that made her famous on The West Wing. Director Lawrence is wise to give her this moment and not let it be only about Michaels. In fact, it could be said the moment is really more about her than him as there are few doubts about his fate, given the formula the movie is stringently following. That isn’t to say that Grant doesn’t have weight here. Again, Lawrence correctly makes this moment about sincerity, not sentiment. That’s important. It’s just these two seasoned actors in a room. No manipulative music or overly drawn emotional dips. The conversation is adult and feels legitimate. The two solve the conflict and it works surprisingly well. She reminds Michaels that the key to good teaching is the willingness to learn something new. That might very well be what Lawrence is trying to do in the aspect of the film as well.
Yes, the scene does pacify the villain in the film and it does clear the way to allow our hero to wrap up the more significant ends of the stories few threads, but it accomplishes this without demoralizing or humiliating the antagonist in ways that are the accepted norm for these films. The nice thing is that the movie sets it up as if that is precisely what will happen but instead, we get something far richer and more personal. Weldon is left as character we can identify with and understand far better. It’s very satisfying and wholly unexpected.
The very definition of light romantic comedy, The Rewrite is nothing more that what it tries to be. Your appreciation of it will depend on your tolerance for plain toast and milk.