A full two decades after “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” Hugh Grant still does that stammering, understated, witty and dashing thing as well as anyone in the business.
Watching Grant nimbly step through the paces in the charming, smart and funny romantic comedy “The Rewrite” is like revisiting your favorite restaurant from the 1990s and learning they’re still doing comfort food the right way. It’s déjà vu in the best sense of the word.
With touches of “Sullivan’s Travels” and just about every fish-out-of-water movie ever, “The Rewrite” is hardly shattering new ground, but the familiar path is strewn with a steady stream of smile-inducing moments, two terrific performances from the leads and a first-rate supporting cast.
Grant plays Keith Michaels, an Oscar-winning screenwriter who hasn’t had a hit in more than a decade and is in desperate need of work. Keith’s wife left him for the director of the film that won Keith the Oscar, he hasn’t talked to his son in more than a year, and every time Keith pitches a screenplay, studio execs tell him they want an edgy action picture with a kick-ass female — not exactly Keith’s forte.
Keith’s agent (the raspy-voiced Caroline Aaron, born to play a gruff but loyal agent) is able to drum up some work for Keith — not on a film, but teaching at Binghamton University in upstate New York, where it always seems to be raining and the town is filled with colorful supporting character types just waiting for a leading man to come to town so they can have their moments to shine.
Before Keith even teaches his first class, he proves himself to be a royal jerk who has no respect for teaching and would rather be anywhere than here. He embarks on an ill-advised affair with a student named Karen (Bella Heathcote), who specializes in sleeping with faculty members and student advisers; offends the department chair (Allison Janney), who’s also the head of the ethics committee, and allows only attractive females and geeky-looking males to gain entry to his class. What a guy.
If not for Grant’s likable performance (even during most of Keith’s most unlikable moments) and a screenplay by Marc Lawrence (who also directed) that almost never lets Keith get away with his transgressions, we’d be watching a movie about an a—— who doesn’t deserve our sympathy. But of course Keith will undergo many a positive change and experience a major revelation or two along the way, because this is a sweet confection of a movie and not a documentary about a Hollywood has-been who becomes a teacher and offends everyone in his wake.
Marisa Tomei is her usual winning self as Holly, a single mother and perpetual student who becomes friends with Keith and calls him on his B.S., which of course makes her all the more interesting to Keith. J.K. Simmons (who was Janney’s “Juno” spouse) is the dean of the university, and Simmons casually robs every scene he’s in. His Dean Lerner is a no-nonsense administrator, but he’ll tear up within 30 seconds when talking about his wife and four daughters. There’s a moment when Keith shows up at the dean’s door, and the dean tells Keith the movie he’s watching with the family, and Simmons’ line reading is just gold.
This is writer-director Marc Lawrence’s fourth collaboration with Grant, after “Two Weeks Notice,” “Music and Lyrics” and “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” Like the Keith Michaels character, Lawrence had a big hit some 15 years in the past (although nobody would mistake “Miss Congeniality” for Oscar bait). Little doubt many of Lawrence’s own experiences contributed to “The Rewrite.”
The end result is arguably the best screenplay Lawrence has ever written, and one of the better vehicles in recent memory for Hugh Grant to pilot.