A screenwriter has to be mightily confident in his script to christen it “The Rewrite,” a title that begs jaded critics to suggest it may have needed another pass or two. Marc Lawrence’s affable but under-inflated romantic comedy does little to fend off such punchlines: The story of a faded Hollywood scribe seeking to regain his creative mojo via a small-town teaching job, the film finds its own writer-helmer struggling to match the bubblegum snap of earlier works. What it does have is Hugh Grant — a standby collaborator for Lawrence, and not an asset to be underestimated. Happily paired with the ever-game Marisa Tomei, the British star hardly tests himself with yet another study in high-class bumbling, yet his breezy effortlessness is precisely the kind that’s in overly short supply here.
Given its easy digestibility and an ensemble speckled with familiar faces — including erstwhile “Juno” spouses Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons, on hand to punch up the comedy in reliably sardonic fashion — it’s surprising that even this relatively uncorrected “Rewrite” waited four months following its Shanghai Film Festival premiere to find U.S. distribution. (Image Entertainment ultimately picked up the rights.)
Perhaps Lawrence’s latest seems too quaint a prospect to auds and bean-counters alike: As cannily repurposed footage from the actor’s Golden Globes acceptance speech reminds us at one point, it’s been a full 20 years since “Four Weddings and a Funeral” announced Grant as the most engagingly eccentric romantic lead of his generation. While the new pic’s mature casting and oatmeal Pottery Barn aesthetic are comforting in their own way, there’s something inescapably ’90s about the whole enterprise — and if the lackluster returns following last month’s U.K. release are any indication, viewers aren’t yet feeling the nostalgia.
Unlike Grant’s character Keith Michaels — an Oscar-winning writer living on the fumes of universal acclaim for a 1999 smash — Lawrence’s strengths haven’t been lavishly acknowledged. His script for 1999’s Sandra Bullock starrer “Forces of Nature” had a kind of postmodern screwball vim; his directorial debut, “Two Weeks’ Notice,” the first of his four films with Grant, had similar pep and polish, though neither film met with much critical respect.
“The Rewrite’s” snapshot of the Hollywood screenwriting racket, then, is suffused with both sympathy and scorn for its protagonist. Noting the diminishing commercial returns of his filmography thus far (culminating in 2009’s misjudged “Did You Hear About the Morgans?”), one could speculate that Lawrence’s own frustrations with the industry are mirrored in Keith’s plight, as he hits a wall with youth-fixated studios. Nevertheless, Lawrence’s script does take a perverse pleasure in making Keith’s own work sound cheesily over-reaching: It’s hard to imagine anyone in the real world scoring awards and adulation for a high-concept theological melodrama titled “Paradise Misplaced.”
With rent and alimony to pay and scripting gigs in perilously short supply, Keith reluctantly accepts a wild-card job dug up by his harried agent (Caroline Aaron): teaching a screenwriting course at the local university in Binghamton, N.Y., a quiet, rain-sodden community whose antique carousels form its liveliest selling point. A firm believer that his craft can’t be taught — and that teachers are little more than gainfully employed failures — Keith regards the assignment with such contempt that he doesn’t even bother reading his students’ applications, instead filling his class with Facebook-vetted eye candy. Worse still, he begins a colossally ill-advised affair with precocious student Karen (Bella Heathcote); matronly Jane Austen scholar and ethics committee chief Professor Weldon (Janney) looks on with venomous suspicion, while weary dean Dr. Lerner (Simmons) tries to keep the peace.
Sunny salvation arrives in the form of Tomei’s unflappable mature student Holly, a hard-working single mother and aspiring writer who bullishly talks her way into the course, where she’s the only protegee old enough to detect the insecurities behind their teacher’s airs. Keith, for his part, manages only temporary resistance to her unashamedly corny talk of self-belief and second chances; it would appear that the secret to life, as to writing, is learning which cliches not to dismiss out of hand. It’s an epiphany that effectively mirrors the one achieved by Grant’s comparably desolate songwriter character in Lawrence’s “Music and Lyrics.”
At a more elevated level, one might say this resolution carries mild pro-populist echoes of Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels.” The idea, however, is sold short in Lawrence’s sweet-but-sluggish script, which gets bogged down in incidental subplots while revealing little of its characters’ inner lives — beyond one brief, affecting scene, played by Grant with an impeccably light touch, of parental testimony. Keith and Holly’s chaste if pleasingly grown-up relationship is similarly never developed past the repeat-meet-cute stage, though the stars can’t be faulted. It’s a rare pleasure to see Tomei in a lead role, and she fills out the short cuts in Lawrence’s characterization with wry warmth and a hint of swallowed disappointment.
Keith is presented upfront as such an obnoxiously self-oriented, morally wayward figure that Grant’s fidgety charms have to work overtime to sustain audience engagement with its big-fish-out-of-water narrative. The filmmaking, meanwhile, is low-energy by Lawrence’s standards: There’s a curious, canned quality to the scoring, while Ken Eluto’s deliberate editing leaves a little too much room between the (often funny, occasionally droopy) quips. It’s a ploy that only pays off during the film’s occasional dips into Larry David-style comedy of embarrassment.