Much has been written about “the death of the romantic comedy” in recent years, which I have ignored, because frankly I was never a fan of the romantic comedy (and refuse to use the term “rom-com”), nor am I interested in statistics or box-office numbers. What hooked me with the premise of The Rewrite, however, is that it’s a movie about a screenwriter, and I love movies about writers, and particularly screenwriters. I also love Hugh Grant and haven’t seen a movie with him in years. (I still think he would be the best James Bond since Sean Connery.) Then I noticed that most of the top-billed cast is remarkably close to my age (55), as is writer/director Marc Lawrence, which got me wondering if this was a kind of “post-rom-com” — geared toward people who have AARP junk mail filling their recycling bins (but who are, of course, young at heart). And then the final straw: it’s set in Binghamton, New York, a town I have been considering for relocation! Once in a while, a movie comes along where you say, “Have you been reading my email? Was this made for me or what?”
Keith Michaels (Grant) is the Oscar-winning writer of everybody’s favorite movie, Paradise Misplaced, but success has eluded him in recent years to the extent that his electricity is turned off and his agent suggests a writer-in-residence gig at SUNY Binghamton. The early scenes reveal a character who has lost his edge and most likely his charm. His pitches fall flat, his jokes aren’t funny, and even his interpersonal behavior is so crude that you realize he is getting by merely on an early, unrepeatable success, his good looks, and the English accent that Americans find so charming.
As it is, he barely survives his first week. Keith arrives in Binghamton in those cold, short, early second semester days, to the promise of a rental Hyundai, a furnished off-campus apartment, and the region’s culinary highlight, a sandwich called the “spiedie” (which looks pretty good, actually). Grey skies, snow, small town, diners… slightly rundown neighborhoods and a new job — it sounds like an adventure to me — but Keith is obviously taking quite a step down and finds it depressing. His first meal is at Wendy’s, leering at a table of young co-eds, and one of them confronts him: “Can I help you with something?” He apologizes, and it turns out that Paradise Misplaced is their favorite movie. One of the women, Karen (Bella Heathcote), might be taking his class, and they end up in bed. Keith is apparently a guy who is plagued by early success.
Keith blithely refuses to realize that sex with students is frowned upon, and the aggressive Karen makes it easy for him. Even worse, at the first faculty get-together he attends he drinks too much and comes off as boorish and sexist and makes disparaging remarks about Jane Austen to Mary Weldon (Allison Janney), who happens to be the resident Jane Austen scholar — as well as head of the ethics committee. Within minutes, they are mortal enemies. In a perfect romantic comedy world, this couple would find out that Jane Austen and Hollywood are like chocolate and peanut butter, and after 90 minutes of ups and downs they would realize they are in love and go on a date to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Seeing how this is a Hollywood romantic comedy, however, and its stars are Hugh Grant and Marisa Tomei, you know before you even see the trailer that they are going to end up together. She plays Holly Carpenter, a single mom going back to school, who seems to be well-adjusted and has a positive outlook on life. Also, she loves the school and the town — which I found quite refreshing — plus, you know, it’s Marisa Tomei! After she pleads with Keith to get in his class, he keeps running into her; she’s a cashier at the student bookstore, and a waitress at a nice restaurant where Karen takes Keith. And if you’ve ever lived in this kind of place, you know that happens.
By this time I’m thinking, wait… what if this is actually a “revisionist rom-com,” and Hugh Grant and Marisa Tomei don’t get together? For one thing, it’s already bearing a suspicious resemblance to Sunset Boulevard — what if it’s essentially a remake of Sunset Boulevard but the Norma Desmond character is a 19-year-old co-ed? What if Keith’s life, not just his lifestyle, is in jeopardy? Before these questions can be answered, however, Keith must overcome the Herculean task of reading a box of 30-page screenplays in order to choose the students for his class. His brilliant solution is to not read any of them, but rather to find photos of the students on the university website and choose his class based on romantic potential (a detail which is not lost on Mary Weldon).
I have not seen any of Marc Lawrence’s previous movies, including three collaborations with Hugh Grant, and had given so little thought to the romantic comedy that it was a surprise to me to do a little reading and find so much written about the decline of the genre and its waning popularity. All of which strikes me as a little sad now, because maybe I’m changing. And after all, it isn’t so much about how the story ends, but about how you feel when you leave the theater. The “happy ending,” for instance — what does it mean, really? Isn’t it, when you think about it, not only kind of cynical, but really a little perverse? Maybe other people experience happy endings in their lives… I’d like to meet one. But then, why not? As I get older, I start to see a day with no physical pain, a day in which there are no terrorist bombings and no school shootings, and no one has died on Facebook, as something like a miracle.
Ultimately, this movie works for me because, as a romance, the chemistry between Marisa Tomei and Hugh Grant is pretty irresistible, and the supporting characters are a lot of fun. It’s also about starting over, reinvention, and second chances, which is not just a device but at the heart of the story. And then, the stuff about writing is insightful; eventually, during one of the classes, Keith paints a pretty grim picture of the life of a writer. When I think of my favorite movies about screenwriters (which happen to be some of my favorite movies, including Godard’s Contempt, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard), it strikes me that they are without exception sad and tragic (Joe Gillis doesn’t even survive the opening credits). Maybe the reason for this is that writing is perhaps the most miserable, harrowing profession known to man. With all due respect to the truly physically dangerous professions, writing is something parents should warn their kids away from along with drugs and unsafe sex. For dealing with rejection, self-doubt and writer’s block, the financial compensation, if there is any, is never steady. And even worse, any success the writer may have is of no help whatsoever when faced with a blank page, and in fact is often a hindrance.
I guess a story like this one offers hope for the characters, who you took the time to get to know, and there is nothing wrong with that. All audiences, as human beings, have a finely honed sense of the nature of humans, and the audience likes not feeling betrayed. Keith is still a narcissist, but he is capable of learning and changing. I wanted something good for him at the end of this movie. As I translate this story in relation to me, I feel in the company of a friend, and that’s all I’m asking for. It’s not “feel good” — which never did hold up as genuine, but “feel better” — and that’s all we can ask for in this crazy world.