Few actors embrace typecasting quite as much as Hugh Grant, who relishes the opportunity to lead a romantic comedy, yet his acting has never been better than when playing a sleazy cad as opposed to a charming unlucky-in-love suitor. The Rewrite gives Grant the chance to indulge both, and although it features romantic undertones—and despite misleading marketing—this is more of a dramatic character study, albeit a funny one.
Grant plays a screenwriter who, in his younger years, wrote one of those hugely important and critically acclaimed films that people still remember fondly as their favourite movie. He has since been faced with writers’ block, his marriage has collapsed, he no longer talks to his now teenage son, and he cannot get any work in Hollywood as he is either deemed too politically incorrect or just old and out-of-touch with the modern audience. His agent persuades him to take a job as a writer-in-residence at a university in upstate New York where he will be able to teach screenwriting to a small class once a week, pull down a decent salary, and have a lot of time to write in a different environment.
The self-destructive nature of the central character is particularly well-performed by Grant, as he desperately attempts to be liked by shallow Hollywood executives whilst treating academics and scholars with contempt, as if they are beneath his talents due to their lack of fame. This inverse set of values—recognition over ability—is an interesting commentary on the entertainment industry and that which constitutes literary merit, and though it is not exhaustingly explored, there are some good points raised.
This is Grant’s fourth collaboration with director Marc Lawrence, and the partnership between the two has brought about some of the best and worst films of Grant’s career. Here, the story is not so much about a couple meeting and falling in love, though there is an element of romance. It is a man’s downfall from what he believed to be rock bottom—his power is turned off due to lack of funds at the beginning of the film—to something like actual rock bottom, and then his eventual recovery.
The film Grant’s writer supposedly wrote that made his name concerned an angelic quest into Hell to save a soul, and The Rewrite itself mirrors that. Grant heads to a place of almost perpetual rain where the glamour and excitement of Hollywood is non-existent but does not realise his endeavour is to redeem himself.
There are some excellent actors in supporting roles here, though they are given a lot less to work with than Grant. Marisa Tomei throws everything into her performance, and her charm and exuberance make up for an underwritten character. She is the optimism to Grant’s pessimism, the solidity to his flakiness, the resolve to his indecision. Given another draft of the script, her character could have been outstanding, but much like Virgil’s guide to Dante when he descended into the Inferno—which Grant’s writer’s script took a fair amount of inspiration from, along with Milton’s Paradise Lost—she is there to facilitate Grant’s journey. J.K. Simmons and Chris Elliott both deliver understated comedy and between them offer the most laughs. Allison Janney has an initially very-thinly-written character, but she works with what she has, and fortunately the script opens up for her later in the film.
One of the more daring dynamics offered in the film presents itself early, and is a risk purely carried on the back of Grant’s charisma. When he arrives at the university he meets three students, one of which—played well by Bella Heathcote—has applied for his screenwriting course. Grant is a middle-aged man from Hollywood, whereas Heathcote is a young student in his care, yet they immediately strike up a sexual relationship. Grant’s character later pleads ignorance when this comes out, but in fact it is his Hollywood mentality that gave him the belief he was entitled to that kind of opportunity in the first place. He shows no remorse, just presents excuses, and the redemption of this act is never fully addressed. Instead, Grant’s character grows up. This is bold and to some could be difficult viewing, but the reality is this behaviour frequently occurs and it is only in the last couple of years that repercussions have begun, and even then it is only when behaviours are brought into the public eye that any kind of justice is sought. Whilst Heathcote’s character is shown as fully aware of her choices and an active participant, this should not let Grant’s character off the hook for what is at least a breach of a position of trust, and at most a sexually manipulative act of dominance and power. He does not get away Scott-free, and there are repercussions for his character, yet for some these will not be enough. Even so, the matter is not indelicately handled, and including it brings up questions that are still pertinent today to Hollywood as well as educational establishments.
The Rewrite is a relatively cosy, feel-good film, but it does have its moments. It is not the kind of film you go into with high expectations, so it can live up to them with ease, and it does hold up on repeat viewing. For writers, there are a few sections of writing advice that share a different perspective to most other offerings. Perhaps the supporting cast could have benefited from The Rewrite undergoing a slight rewrite, but the film itself is solid and worth seeing. Most of all, The Rewrite makes you laugh, whilst also putting some harsh truths before you and allowing you, the viewer, to pass your own judgement.