Hugh Grant doesn’t really need to work much if he doesn’t want to, so it’s probably this fact that keeps him off scree rather than a desire to limit the exposure of his “brand”. If asked, he would probably indulge a spot of Boris Johnson-esque toff bluster about how no one really wants to see him everywhere and it’s in their own best interests, while secretly enjoying all the attention. But the harsh truth is, Grant has reached his mid-50s, and he may also be questioning how long he can continue to pull off the self-effacing, stammering, moderately charming English chappie. It's an essentially youthful type. That rather droll persona, the one who swears like a trooper but does so endearingly, and manages to be extremely rude to people without really meaning it. Hugh may not attract the audiences he did in his prime, but few do. If you like Grant, The Rewrite will probably do nicely. It’s undemanding, fitfully funny, and features just enough gags revolving around the Hollywood moviemaking machine to make it seem vaguely self-aware.
The last time Grant was on screen he played a cannibal (the time before that he voiced a pirate captain for Aardman), and next he’ll be playing Waverley in The Man from UNCLE, so accusing him of resting on his laurels is only really fair with regard to leading man duties. The Rewrite knows that particular persona as clearly as it did in his last three collaborations with writer-director Marc Lawrence (Two Weeks Notice, Music and Lyrics, Did You Hear About the Morgans?) When Lawrence directs, he directs with Hugh, or so it appears so far. It isn’t exactly De Niro and Scorsese, but it will do. Lawrence has an ear for Grant dialogue, so Hugh’s often funny.
Here Hugh’s Keith Michaels (Richards?), a fading Hollywood screenwriter who won an Oscar a decade and a half earlier (for Paradise Misplaced, a suitably silly sounding tale of angels who send the wrong soul to hell and attempt to retrieve him), but whose career now amounts to people at airports telling him he wrote their favourite movie. In desperation he takes a teaching gig at unglamorous Binghamton University, an upstate New York college (and the town from whence Rod Serling hails).
Keith’s view of teachers is remorselessly low (“They’re frustrated losers who haven’t done anything with their own life so they want to instruct other people”) and he proceeds to show off a winning line in flagrant irresponsibility upon his arrival. He shags the first student he lays eyes on (Bella Heathcote), insults the Austen-loving head of the ethics committee (Allison Janney), chooses his students on the basis of looks, and adjourns his class for a month as he doesn’t believe writing can be taught. Despite this, Lawrence could have upped the dastardly side further without worrying about losing sympathy. Grant is forever the fecklessly amiable clod who we’ll get behind in the end, and Keith’s really only moderately naughty, and bashfully apologetic when he’s done bad.
Still, there are enough occasions of classic Grant delivery mode to satisfy. He drunkenly digs himself a hole when holding forth about the preponderance of movies with kick ass girls, and how it would be empowering not to have a movie about a kick ass girl, “Or better yet, a movie where a girl gets her arse kicked”. The screenwriting gags are fun enough too (I particularly liked the student suggestions for the inevitable Paradise Misplaced 2, something Keith swore off when he was still young and believed in himself; “Maybe instead of going to hell this time they go into space”). Lawrence also inevitably plunders the idea that everyone wants to write a movie script; even Keith’s nemesis has a screenplay idea.
Just to ensure there’s a veneer of substance, Lawrence incorporates a debate on whether one either has talent or one doesn’t, but its conclusions are left tentative (Keith’s great success is a student who needed no tutorship, and yet he comes around to loving his job). Hugh’s learning curve is wholly typical of this type of movie, maybe even a little more rote than usual; of course he will fall for single mum Marisa Tomei. Of course he will learn to be responsible. Of course he will reconnect with his son. I have no objections to an easy-going romantic comedy, but this one is so fait accompli, one wishes there was a little more bite somewhere.
The supporting cast go through their paces responsibly but with little sustenance. JK Simmons is the faculty head who can’t stop weeping whenever he thinks of his daughters (as laboured as it sounds, but Simmons is a pro), Chris Elliott, unusually, plays a weirdo teacher (with a Shakespeare fixation and a dog called Henry IV). Next Big Thing Heathcote is both cute and appropriately abrasive when scorned (unlike everyone else she still hates Hugh at the end).
The rest of the class are a predictably quirky (so not really), including the miserable girl, the airhead, and the Star Wars obsessive. While the threat of Keith being dismissed for shagging a student ensures a vague level of conflict, the romance with the always-likeable, chipmunk-adorable Tomei treads water. As does The Rewrite generally, it will do, but Lawrence should probably have persevered over a couple more drafts.