Had "The Rewrite" come out in 1999, it would have gotten ample promotion and a wide theatrical release from a major studio. In 2015, the Hollywood landscape has changed, both in regard to what kinds of films distributors are looking for and how they are ultimately released. In a day and age when the vast majority of movies that roll out on a nationwide scale are all about high-concept plotting, franchise-worthy source material and showy, effects-heavy scope, there is little room in multiplexes for well-written, character-centric ensemble piecesno matter who is starring in them. Written and directed by Marc Lawrence (who previously collaborated with actor Hugh Grant on 2002's "Two Weeks Notice
," 2007's "Music and Lyrics
," and 2009's "Did You Hear About the Morgans?
"), the heartfelt, smartly amusing "The Rewrite" deserved a bigger marketing push, but instead was relegated to a VOD release and a theatrical birth so miniscule it didn't even show up on the full weekend box-office charts. It may not have the visual fireworks of a Marvel Comics adaptation, but in many ways it is more satisfying, even refreshing, to see a film about real-seeming people in identifiable situations. There isn't an alien, robot or superhero in sight, and sometimes that is a very good thing.
Fifteen years ago, screenwriter Keith Michaels (Hugh Grant) was riding high with an award-winning hit movie (a metaphysical fantasy-drama called "Paradise Misplaced") under his belt. Now, coming off a series of less successful follow-ups, his star has faded and demand has slowed to a nonexistent trickle. Nearly broke and looking for work, he accepts an offer to teach a screenwriter course at Binghamton University in Upstate New York. He knows nothing about teaching and initially chooses his prospective students based on their looks, but then a funny thing starts to happen: he discovers that he actually enjoys his new job and, it turns out, actually has a lot to offer about writing characters and developing a three-act structure. When purse-lipped literature professor Mary Weldon (Allison Janney) learns of Keith's relationship with student Karen (Bella Heathcote)someone he met prior to her being in his classhis college gig is suddenly put into jeopardy unless he can convince her to give him another chance to right his indiscretions.
Stories about teachers inspiring their students (and vice versa) are nothing new, but "The Rewrite" is woven with grace and a notable empathy for its characters. An observant, easy-breezy slice-of-life, the film casts Hugh Grant in the kind of charismatic, mildly prickly role he does so well, anchoring an excellent cast that also includes the luminous Marisa Tomei (2012's "Parental Guidance
") as Holly Carpenter, a divorced mother and elder student with whom Keith finds himself connecting; J.K. Simmons (2014's "Whiplash
") as supportive, down-to-earth department dean Dr. Lerner; Bella Heathcote (2012's "Dark Shadows
") as the flirtatious, immature Karen, and Allison Janney (2015's "The DUFF
"), perfection as the straight-faced, Jane Austen-loving Mary Weldon. In a lesser film, these figures would be one-note types, but writer-director Marc Lawrence loves his characters and gives themand the whole lot of Keith's studentsgenuine layers and personality. By the end, the viewer believes Keith has gone through a transformative experience and is a better person because of it. With a clear-eyed sense of location (most of the film is set in the often rainy, unsuspectingly attractive Binghamton, NY), enough knowledge of the screenwriting business to sell its premise, and only minor contrivances along the way, "The Rewrite" is simple, unforced and immensely winning.