“Forgive me, I’m just a little tired of female empowerment.”
It’s February again, and that must mean it’s Oscar season. The movie world is astir with pomp and opinion, rushing to celebrate the high-minded, socially conscious achievements from actors whose intense performances probe deep into the human condition, and filmmakers with the vision to show us new perspectives on life. In this heated climate, when films that ignite social or political conversation like Selma or American Sniper are dominating the discourse, it can be refreshing to take a step back from all that contentiousness and watch a movie that has nothing whatsoever on its mind.
Enter Hugh Grant.
Let’s just get this out of the way: The Rewrite is a Hugh Grant movie. The man is basically his own genre at this point so when you see his name on the bill you know exactly what to expect. This is Grant’s fourth collaboration with writer/director Marc Lawrence, whose other credits include Two Weeks Notice and Music and Lyrics. Try to guess if Grant will be a witty, sheepish, and handsome cad who becomes a better person and falls in love, not necessarily in that order. Unleash your wildest speculations as to the film’s potential for a haltingly funny first half that segues into treacle as inevitable lessons are learned and the right people figure out who they are and get together. What I’m saying is that the movie is all formula and if you expect anything new you’re kidding yourself.
I freely admit that I’m not the target audience for this sort of film, and I can understand if the inclination of that target audience is to want the same thing packaged in a slightly different way. The romantic comedy genre is not altogether different from other genres like action or horror in that respect. But it’s a little disappointing to see the film leading us on by flirting with some actually interesting ideas and then never calling us again. Wait, what?
The setup: Hugh Grant is Keith Michaels, a Hollywood screenwriter who years ago wrote a popular movie called Paradise Misplaced and never scored big again. The movie opens with him unsuccessfully pitching a film idea to execs and walking out of the meeting defeated, head down like Charlie Brown, sad jazzy music and all. To help him pay the bills until business picks up, his agent gets him a job teaching a college screenwriting class in the small town of Binghamton, NY.
“Big city hot shot hates the small town” is not exactly a new premise, but at least they get points for having him Google search the place like a normal person. While going through security, TSA agents discover Michaels’ screenwriting Oscar in his luggage and treat him like a star for 30 seconds until he makes an ill-advised bomb joke and alienates them. “I used to know what was funny,” he moans. Not a great omen for the next 101 minutes. Cue standard, boring “guy drives to new city” montage with music laid over establishing shots.
However, small town life quickly improves for our modestly dashing protagonist as he strikes up a conversation with some college girls while eating alone at a Wendy’s. It turns out one of them (Karen, played by the stunning Bella Heathcote) is signed up for his screenwriting course and very obviously has a thing for professors. How obviously, you ask? Let’s just say one of the notes I took while watching this movie was “eats french fry sexily.” She tells Michaels she appreciates his alliteration, and he tells her “Nice assonance.” For those wondering, that is the repetition of vowel sounds, and absolutely a compliment I intend to give a woman this week.
Thank God J. K. Simmon is in this. The actor is always a bright spot, although his character has an overused and annoying quirk where he cries within 30 seconds of talking about his family. Come to think of it, almost everyone in this movie has an overused and/or annoying quirk as a stand-in for characterization. The students in Michaels’ class are particularly bad, especially the two young men he allows to take his course (more on that in a second.) One of them, Billy, is hopelessly obsessed with Star Wars. He wears Star Wars graphic tees every day and plagiarizes that film for his own screenplay. He also talks in a sniveling, wavering voice just to underscore the fact that he could definitely not be a sexual option to any of the girls in the class. Less embarrassing but even more damning is Clem, a self-professed nerd who must often stop mid-conversation to use his nasal spray. Clem is the class’s prodigy, the only one who writes an actually great script. He’s on the verge of becoming a real character in the movie, which makes his lazy characterization all the more inexcusable. The nasal spray might just as well be an inhaler, which has been shorthand for a physically vulnerable or pathetic character as long as anyone can remember. It’s a cliché’s cliché. At one point a character actually counters Michaels’ critique of a script element with “Saying ‘a bit cliché’ is a bit cliché.” I’m sorry movie, but you cannot cover your assonance with that.
The women don’t fare any better. There’s the girl whose vapid script tells us she thinks no deeper than the details of planning a wedding. There’s also the severe post-goth chick whose humorless pages are obsessed with death, though she almost transcends the stereotype due to Annie Q’s natural comic presence. One of the film’s best moments is her reading of a passage from her own screenplay, revealing a well of wasted comedic potential – I wanted to know what was in the students’ awful scripts! Then there’s the luminous Marissa Tomei. It’s been said before but it bears repeating: this woman does not age. When we meet her, we immediately recognize that she is the one Michaels should end up with. Don’t be surprised if the Blu-Ray features the two of them on the cover, with a white background and big, red text.
I mentioned that Keith allows two non-threatening male students to take his course. He fills the rest of the class with attractive women, bothering to read none of the pages they submitted. He begins a sexual relationship with Karen despite knowing she is a student, something that any moron can tell is going to be a problem whether or not he’s brushed up on the school’s bylaws, and clashes with an uptight literature professor and Jane Austen expert (the irony that Hugh Grant should hate Jane Austen despite appearing in Sense and Sensibility is not lost). He says he’s not a misogynist and he’s just tired of having scripts turned down because studios are looking for “badass women.” But here’s the thing – he’s totally a misogynist. That’s the text of the film. Make him bumbling and British all you want, but the man is a borderline sexual predator. The movie sets up this conflict wherein his entrenched attitude has never really been challenged, and then it does absolutely nothing with it. It populates his world with 1-dimensional characters and smoothes out his journey into a conventional rom-com trajectory so that neither he nor the film is ever forced to deal directly with their treatment of women.
This being a movie about the writing of movies, it’s hard not look through the story and see deliberate choices being made by Lawrence as the screenwriter. Does he see himself in the Michaels character? Is there anything at all here meant to resemble real relationships or real emotion? Keith’s estranged son subplot feels like an afterthought if it was a thought at all. Does Lawrence not realize that transparently ticking boxes is going to be a lot more obvious when his story is actively calling the audience’s attention to screenplay mechanics? Lawrence may not be Charlie Kaufman, but that doesn’t mean he can just ignore the connection between his script and the story it tells. I don’t expect a movie like this to be challenging; but it’s so insistent on being unchallenging that it’s frustrating, especially when there’s material there that deserves more attention. The Rewrite is trying awfully hard to divert our attention while it sweeps its own flaws under the rug.