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Rewrite, The

D: Marc Lawrence / 107m

Cast: Hugh Grant, Marisa Tomei, Bella Heathcote, J.K. Simmons, Chris Elliott, Allison Janney, Caroline Aaron, Steven Kaplan, Emily Morden, Annie Q, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Aja Naomi King, Damaris Lewis

Keith Michaels (Grant) is a Hollywood screenwriter who had a big hit with his first script, Paradise Misplaced. But since then his caché has faded to the point where he can’t even get a job doing rewrites on other scripts. When his agent, Ellen (Aaron), tells him about a job teaching screenwriting at Binghamton University, he refuses to take it, but his lack of money persuades him to take it. He arrives in Binghamton and while at a fast-food restaurant, meets some of the university’s students, including Karen (Heathcote) who has signed up for his class.

The next day he wakes up in his new residence with Karen asleep beside him. He heads off to work and meets the university’s head, Dr Lerner (Simmons). He shows Michaels his office and leaves him with seventy script submissions made by students who want to attend his class; all he has to do is read through them and pick ten students whose work he feels is good enough. Instead, Michaels selects his students – eight of them at least – by checking their files and picking the ones he finds the most attractive (including Karen). On his way to a faculty meeting later that day he runs into mature student Holly Carpenter (Tomei) who gives him her own script and asks that he consider her for the class. Then, at the meeting, he falls foul of tenured professor Mary Weldon (Janney) when he rubbishes the idea of female empowerment and the novels of Jane Austen, Weldon’s specialist subject.

When he ends his first, very short, lesson with the proviso that his students meet back in a month after they’ve completed their scripts, Michaels finds that Weldon is also head of the ethics board and is looking to get rid of him, and if she finds out about his relationship with Karen, it’ll be all the ammunition she needs. He resumes lessons, and begins to take a closer interest in everyone’s scripts; at the same time he tries to end things with Karen. His relationship with Holly develops as she takes an equal interest in him, particularly in his son Alex, whom he hasn’t spoken to in a year. But when Weldon learns of his fling with Karen, he finds he has only two choices: either leave quietly, or face an enquiry which will eventually be made public. With one of his students, Clem (Kaplan) producing a script that Michaels can use as a way of boosting his career, he has to make a decision that proves to be harder than he expected.

Rewrite, The - scene

The fourth collaboration between Grant and director Lawrence – following Two Weeks Notice (2002), Music and Lyrics (2007), and Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009) – The Rewrite is an amiable comedy sprinkled with astute literary and cinematic references, and features a romantic subplot that is practically traditional in this type of movie. It’s a fun, good-natured movie that coasts along for most of its runtime, but often redeems itself with a witty one-liner or a heartfelt scene that gives its talented cast a chance to make the material shine that much brighter than expected.

Much of the fun to be had comes from Grant, who downplays his usual tics and grimaces (though they’re still there) and provides a performance that’s a breezy mix of egocentric and rueful, charming and nonchalant. His more mature look is a pleasing addition to the mix and suits his character’s down-on-his-luck situation; Grant’s face makes Michaels’ moments of regret that much more effective. In the scene with Tomei where he talks about his son Alex, Grant reveals a vulnerability and a sadness we don’t see very often in his performances, and it serves as a reminder that, when required, Grant as an actor is capable of far more than just being a bumbling fish out of water.

Grant is ably supported by the likes of Tomei, Simmons and Janney, seasoned pro’s who can do this sort of thing in their sleep, and if their characters seem painfully underwritten at times it shouldn’t be surprising as this is Grant’s movie pure and simple, a star vehicle created for him and which he navigates with ease. It’s a good job too, as Lawrence’s script spends a lot of time ensuring that Michaels doesn’t encounter any real problems on his way to personal redemption. With the movie robbed of any real drama as a result, it’s left to Grant et al to inject a degree of seriousness at appropriate moments, and offset the more woolly aspects of the material.

However, Lawrence’s central conceit, that teaching can be as rewarding as doing, is ably demonstrated and the scenes where Michaels critiques his students’ work are among the most rewarding in the movie, and The Rewrite improves whenever these scenes occur. Again, it’s a good job, as without them (or the cast’s enthusiasm) the movie would be too familiar and unsurprising to be persuasive, and the goodwill Grant’s presence provides would be wasted. It is funny, though, but like so many comedies that don’t take the “edgy” approach of movies such as Sex Tape (2014), and instead rely on tried and trusted set ups and tropes, it struggles to provide its audience with anything new or original.

Still, it’s innocuous and pleasant enough to make it a not entirely disappointing prospect, and Lawrence’s direction – while a little wayward – does enough to ensure the viewer’s attention is held from start to finish. With efficient if unspectacular cinematography from Jonathan Brown that unfortunately adds a layer of blandness to some of the visuals, and a occasionally distracting soundtrack that mixes original songs with a score from irregular composer Clyde Lawrence, the movie’s aim doesn’t appear to be particularly high. But, perversely, it succeeds against a veritable truckload of odds by being oddly endearing and defiantly sweet.

Rating: 6/10 – sporadically effective and bolstered by Grant’s easy-going performance, The Rewrite is a middling comedy that comes alive in fits and starts; a tighter script – ironically – would have improved things, but even so, it hits the spot when required.