Hugh Grant doesn’t flutter his eyes and stammer for comic effect any more. The long forelock that bounced over one sparkling blue eye was victim of that middle-aged man trim from the hair stylist.
But the guy still has that stoop-shouldered, arms-bowed walk that his ex, Liz Hurley, famously labeled “simian.” And he still has a way with an offhandedly witty, cutting line.
So in “The Rewrite,” his is perfectly nonplussed as a once-hot screenwriter forced to pitch his ideas to the mere “embryos” who run film studios today, and perfectly misplaced in the upstate New York college town of Binghamton, a British ex-pat Hollywood sophisticate forced to take a screenwriting teaching job because that’s all that’s left to him.
“I hate teachers,” Keith Michaels gripes to his agent. “They’re frustrated losers who haven’t done anything with their own lives so they want to to instruct other people” in theirs. And now he’s one of them.
The students and some of the other faculty (Chris Elliott is a Shakespeare scholar) are ever-so-impressed that the writer of the Oscar-winning “Paradise Misplaced” is in their midst.
“I wish I could do what you do,” one gushes.
“So do I.”
The culture clash here is Michaels bringing his Hollywood ethics, sexism and work habits to a nearly charmless college town with a student body of modest ambitions. The kids just want to “get high,” grumps the faculty chair (J.K. Simmons, funny). The teachers — especially the resident Jane Austen scholar (Allison Janney,, perfectly snippy) — just do their best to get through to the kids, and pray for the meager rewards that publishing their research offers.
“Rewrite” is the fourth Grant collaboration with writer turned writer-director Marc Lawrence (“Two Week’s Notice,” “Words & Music”), and while he plainly has an ear for the way Grant talks, “fresh ground” is an alien concept to him. Thus, the 50something Grant plays a man utterly clueless about the social, moral and legal edicts against dating students. The predatory Karen (Belle Heathcote) angles to get to him and get into his class.
Marisa Tomei is the SOTA — student older than average — single mother of two, working multiple jobs, aspiring screenwriter, willing to make a pest of herself to get into that same course.
And Michaels, being backwardly sexist, proceeds to “cast” the class the way crass producers populate their pictures — with nubile young women, and the occasional nonthreatening nerdy male. He doesn’t even bother to evaluate their work.
The funny stuff here has to do with the myopia of Hollywood “types.” Every pitch meeting is with very young people, one of them a young woman, insisting on “empowered” female characters being shoved into every screenplay. Michaels relates every life obstacle to a movie, because that’s easier than thinking or observing and learning or reading a book. How does one teach?
“I’ll watch ‘Dead Poets Society’ to prepare!”
And the screenwriting kids are self-absorbed dreamers who believe their mundane autobiography is the perfect jumping-off-point for a script.
There’s a nice sense of place, as Michaels learns about the town from Wikipedia and Tomei’s perky, age-appropriate flirt. Lawrence ties in Binghamton’s most famous writer — Rod “Twilight Zone” Serling — into those teachable moments of the script, when the hero-screenwriter starts to warm to the pace of the place, to teaching and to the promising minds he is meant to mold.
It probably never had a prayer of being a wide release, with Lawrence and Grant’s co-mingled careers shrinking in ambition and appeal. But there’s charm here, and Grant is engagingly disengaged playing somebody who knows the fickle finger of Hollywood fate no longer points his way. He just has to decide not to be miserable about that.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with adult situations, mild profanity, drug references
Cast: Hugh Grant, Marisa Tomei, Bella Heathcote, J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney, Chris Elliott
Credits: Written and directed by Marc Lawrence. A FilmNation release.
Running time: 1:46