Back in the 1990s, Hugh Grant made a name for himself playing charming snots, but in his new film The Rewrite, the emphasis is more on "snot" than on "charming." Here, Grant is Keith Michaels, a Hollywood screenwriter who once had a Golden Globe–winning hit but has since made only flops — that is, when he gets to make anything at all. The film opens with a series of execs listening to, and rejecting, Keith's latest pitch, some generic nonsense about an old man staging his own funeral. When the power is shut off at his apartment, he decides to concede to the final indignity and accepts a teaching job in Binghamton, New York. (“I hate teachers. They’re frustrated losers who haven’t done anything with their own lives, so they want to instruct other people,” he says, little realizing that, for all intents and purposes, he now is that guy.)
Upon arrival in “Bing Ham Ton” (he pronounces the name like Ferdinand Magellan asking for directions), Keith promptly beds one of his students (Bella Heathcote). Next, using online student profiles, he assembles a class made up entirely of female hotties and male dweebs. Then, despite arranging for a class that's easy on the eyes, he cancels it for a month, saying that screenwriting can't be taught. (He genuinely believes that; plus, he’s got nothing to teach.) Along the way, he pisses off his colleagues when he argues with a high-ranking senior professor (Allison Janney) about the triviality of Jane Austen and the tiredness of female empowerment. It’s not so much that Keith is a misogynistic jerk, though he kind of is that, too; it’s that he’s wounded, because his inability to write strong female characters was one of the reasons his scripts were being rejected. (“You know what would be inventive? A movie without a kickass girl. Or better yet, a movie where a woman gets her ass kicked,” he declares at the party, thus stopping the festivities dead. Womp womp.)
This is the kind of seemingly irredeemable scenario that Grant once excelled at finagling himself out of, through a combination of his enduring boyish wit and his scripts' prefab life lessons. He's not quite so boyish anymore, and while The Rewrite moves along on a steady dribble of predictable plot points (Keith discovers a student with lots of talent, Keith discovers he actually can teach screenwriting, Keith finds himself with A Choice to Make About Going Back to His Old Life™), it lacks the immaculately engineered rom-com trajectory of such Peak Hugh films as Notting Hill, About a Boy, or even Music & Lyrics.
There is a romance here, however: Keith meets an older sophomore, Holly (a winning Marisa Tomei), a single mom attempting to get a psych degree while working two jobs and who loves to watch his one good film with her daughters. At first he's irritated by her persistence — she desperately wants to be in his class — but is eventually won over by her seemingly unstoppable cheer. Still, The Rewrite is only half a rom-com. The predictable attraction between Keith and Holly is well deployed but mostly unconsummated. That's not such a bad thing. Tomei and Grant have a nice contrast of energies — his glum sarcasm juts interestingly against her effervescence. You want to see what happens to them as a couple, and the film's coyness about getting them together feels more like a pleasant tease than narrative clumsiness.
The bigger problem is everything else the film leaves hanging in the air, which is strange for a movie that keeps reminding you of the basics of screenplay structure. Keith's dispute with Janney’s character over female empowerment in literature is mostly abandoned, though it's somewhat replaced by a similarly halfhearted subplot about whether Keith might be fired for bedding one of his students. The Rewrite has a solid pedigree — it was written and directed by Marc Lawrence, who previously directed Grant in Two Weeks Notice and Music & Lyrics — but it has a curiously half-formed quality. The rather absurdly solid supporting cast, which includes J.K. Simmons as the head of Keith's department and Chris Elliott as a Shakespeare-spouting fellow prof, speaks to ambitions unfulfilled. Maybe it’s just that The Rewrite wants to be a film about the messiness of life but it only has Hollywood clichés to work with.