Kicking the Tweets

Entries in Rewrite/The [2014] (1)


The Rewrite (2014)

Coarse Credit

Anniversaries used to be a really big deal for my wife and me: our finest clothes, tourist-priced dinner downtown, and maybe even a movie. Fast-forward to swingin' adult responsibilities like sitter-free parenthood and house payments--and Date Night 2.0 is all about ice cream and Redbox. This year, we rented a film we'd never heard of, directed by a guy who'd made two films we really enjoyed, with a cast one would think warranted at least some kind of big-screen push. Ten minutes into The Rewrite, I asked aloud, "How did this get dumped on home video?"

An hour and ten minutes later, I had the answer. This isn't a bad movie, but it's not an airy rom-com, either (even if it does star Hugh Grant in one of his most reluctantly charming, aggressively blinking roles to date). This is writer/director Marc Lawrence's mid-life crisis, captured on film. The paper-thin allegory about a once-acclaimed screenwriter reduced to teaching college in upstate New York will mean little to those who "just watch movies"; for us celluloid junkies scrounging for meta-narratives in the most tenuous of cinematic connections, however, The Rewrite is a cry for help from the guy who blew up with Miss Congeniality and blew out with Did You Hear About the Morgans?.

Grant stars as Keith Michaels, whom we meet taking a series of pitch meetings with studio executives. His ideas flop, and he becomes more desperate by the minute.* His prospects all but evaporated, our hero takes a gig teaching screenwriting at Binghamton University, and is only in town a few minutes before bedding a student he meets at Wendy's. Keith believes that only the mechanics of writing can be taught, that real talent is something one either is or isn't born with. Actually teaching, in other words, simply isn't in the cards. So he amuses himself by populating his class with the most attractive co-eds from the applicant list--plus a couple of somewhat promising guys in the name of, I guess, fairness.

Of course, because this is a Hollywood-Big-Shot-in-a-Small-Town movie, Keith encounters a dozen colorful locals, each with quirks and stories that Lawrence slices and dices into subplots. These include the quirky Shakespeare-professor/neighbor (Chris Elliott); the ex-Marine dean (J.K. Simmons); the uptight Women's Studies professor (Allison Janney); and the middle-aged-single-mom-going-back-to-school (Marissa Tomei). I won't get into the students, except to say they're are alternately more dimensional than one might expect from a movie like this, and so broadly drawn as to be practically 2D animations.

The Rewrite reminded me of Larry Crowne, the Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts vehicle that also finds lost, life-weary adults back in the classroom, learning life’s big lessons. There’s something “off” about that movie, too: a mix of cozy conventions, crossed with the desire to defy those conventions through the novelty of a cast that’s light years beyond the material. Lawrence reaches a tipping point when digging into his themes (musings on fame, talent, settling versus settling down), with one meandering scene too many. Halfway in, The Rewrite begins to struggle with its identity and enrolls in the Judd Apatow School of Comedic Bloat. Music and Lyrics lost its laugh-momentum, too--but never took itself so seriously as to tiptoe from comedy into lukewarm existential drama.

Despite this troubling genre confusion, I still appreciate The Rewrite as a comfy, flat-toned diversion. Lawrence was, at one point, capable of churning out solid, high-concept comedies. But his recent films have been all over the map: still high-concept, but stuck between craving broad appeal and indulging an exploratory headiness that doesn't belong in the mainstream marketplace. Maybe one day, we'll look back on this era as Lawrence's "sketching" phase, an uneasy bridge on the way to something great. But The Rewrite's lack of focus (is this a farce, a character study, a higher-learning Northern Exposure?) guarantees that watching the disc get sucked back into a supermarket kiosk will be my last memory of it.

*If this sounds familiar, Music and Lyrics also opens with a washed-up pop star meeting with TV executives who want him to judge a reality-TV competition. That film also starred Grant, and was written and directed by Marc Lawrence.